Easy atonement?

A journey into the murky world of carbon offsets

Kim Cornford

Manna Matters November 2010

Earlier in the year, in the midst of the Rudd Government’s failure to make any response to climate change, “the moral challenge of our generation”, I was reminded that it is often the small choices for positive change that really make a difference to the world around us, and which honour God.  It was in this context that I began to look into the idea of carbon offsets.  What is it, what is its purpose, and is this something we should be doing? 

 More than a year ago I had attended a local Carbon Reduction Action Group (CRAG) meeting and was challenged about our household’s carbon footprint, and the myriad of ways in which our everyday life and choices impact the planet.  It came as no great surprise that out of all the categories assessed, air travel constituted more than half of our household’s footprint. Living far from both our families in Queensland, and working in overseas development easily tallies up thousands of air kilometres.  Certainly, these issues were known to us, but I discovered that actually doing the calculations on our household emissions across energy, transport, diet and waste, and then seeing the hard data did shed new light.  We realised that if our concern to care for God’s earth is one which we take seriously, a meaningful response was required of us.

 What has this change looked like so far?  In the CRAG assessment, the next highest source of our household emissions was from beef and dairy. In our household, what we eat, and the way in which we buy food is changing. Most importantly, we have reduced our meat consumption to 2 or 3 meals per week, are consuming smaller portions in those meals and have mostly replaced beef with kangaroo. We’re also much more aware of how much milk and cheese we consume.  Did you know that it takes 5 litres of milk to make about 500g of cheddar?  Although we have 100% Accredited Greenpower, we keenly assess our electricity usage each quarter, and likewise our Green Gas bill gets scrutinised for efficiency gains.  I remind myself daily that getting on my bike instead of grabbing the car keys to do that quick job, or quick trip to the shop, is worth it.

 After examining the sources of our carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions, and strategising how we could make reductions, we realised that even on this new path, there are some things we can’t change, or are not ready to change just yet. In particular, while we are attempting reduce our air travel – we recently drove to Brisbane instead of flying - we are unable to eliminate it. The more we have explored the myriad of ways in which we are responsible for emitting carbon, the more we have come to realise that we will always be ‘carbon positive’. This got us thinking about the tricky issue of carbon offsets.

 A carbon offset is used to compensate for greenhouse gas emissions from your own activities.  It is an investment in a project or activity that reduces greenhouse gas emissions or sequesters (stores) carbon from the atmosphere.  The investment could be in tree planting or forestry, renewable energy, and so on. 

 Immediately the first prickly issue arises – will this carbon offset assuage the discomfort we feel about our emissions, and lull us into an easy sense of guiltlessness, and therefore allow us to continue our carbon lifestyle?  Yes, it most definitely could.

 The purchase of carbon offsets can, and does, allow individuals, small businesses and large corporations alike to buy their way out of responsibility and disown the requisite sacrifices required to reduce global warming. It can be done in minutes, online, paid for by credit card.

For example, for a grand total of $3.42 on my return flight to Brisbane with Virgin Blue I can ease my conscience and supposedly ‘fly carbon neutral’.  As I research what this might actually mean, I begin to see how the issue gets complex and questionable.  When I do the same carbon calculation for air travel with other carbon offset calculators, my offset can cost anywhere between $15 and $22.  So what exactly am I paying for, or rather, not paying for?

 Indeed at the very core of the process of carbon offsetting are some very difficult ethical questions about how our economy operates, what our society values, and our complicity in it all.  Carbon trading has facilitated the development of a global carbon market valued at tens of billions of dollars, and ironically, delivered enormous profits to many of the world’s big greenhouse gas polluters.  In 1997 the Kyoto Protocol established the ‘Clean Development Mechanism’ offset system whereby industrialised countries purchase emission reduction credits in lieu of cutting their own emissions, and developing countries receive the proceeds to fund clean development projects.  Projects might be hydropower dams, biomass power plants, changes to industrial processes, and so on.  A report published by the NGO International Rivers shows that offsets are being sold to projects that never needed income from the CDM to be built, and has actually resulted in the ‘transfer of billions of dollars to undeserving project developers’ and an ‘army of carbon brokers and consultants’.[1] 

 Furthermore, as Miriam Pepper noted in a previous edition of Manna Matters (Nov 09, p.10), profitable carbon offsets in developing countries can often come at the expense of poor and marginalised local groups, especially ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples. The International Rivers report quotes a statement from the International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum:

Any further expansion of the CDM [Clean Development Mechanism] is an excuse to avoid real emissions reductions. The CDM and the carbon market are instruments that commodify the atmosphere, promote privatisation and concentrate resources in the hands of a few, taking away the rights of many to live with dignity.  CDM are not a mechanism for mitigating climate change.  It is not just “carbon” or pollution that is being traded, but people’s lives.”

 The International Rivers report unveils the difficulties of monitoring, of legal frameworks, of foreign ownership of local resources, of the inevitable strengthening of global imbalances in wealth and ownership of resources.

 In Australia, tree planting projects are the main carbon offset offered by providers.  However, there are no requirements for tree planting projects to value biodiversity or other ecosystem services such as water, soil, and salinity.  Despite global campaigning in recent years around the disastrous social and environmental impacts of large scale monoculture tree plantations, Australian policy and incentives still encourage these practices.  The Australian Greenhouse Office in its “Guide to Forest Sink Planning, Management and Carbon Accounting” document clearly explains that plantations sequester carbon more quickly than environmental plantings.  Under the Kyoto guidelines, revegetation does not meet the ‘forest’ criteria, and therefore is not counted towards Australia’s Kyoto target.

 Participation in the business of carbon trading serves to distract attention from the wider systemic changes needed to tackle climate change, continues the exploitation of the global marginalised, and can create a whole new set of problems. 

 So there are some pretty strong reasons to be a bit suspicious of this whole offsetting business. But what about all that carbon that we have come to realise we can’t avoid emitting (at least in the near future)? Can we still find some way of offsetting without entering into the dangers described above? Because of our sense of the urgency of climate change, we have felt the need to push this further.

 Having become clearer about the dangers, we decided that we would still seek some means of actively promoting the removal of carbon from the atmosphere, roughly equal to our yearly emissions. However, we felt the need to set some strict criteria:

  1. To not consider any offsetting without first having undertaken a serious process of carbon accounting and reduction planning. This means finding out how much we are emitting and the contributions that our various household activities make to this, and then getting hard-nosed about how we make changes that reduce our emissions.
  2. If we use a carbon offset provider, it must be a not-for-profit organisation, as there are too many perverse incentives for pursuing profit in the carbon market.
  3. The carbon offset provider must undertake the activity itself and not be a broker for someone else. This is to avoid the complexity involved in multiple layers, and the extra opportunity it provides for tricky accounting.
  4. In seeking an offset, it should be as direct as possible, and not involve abstractions such as imputed ‘avoided emissions’, and more tricky accounting. This has led us to favour planting trees, the simplest and most direct way of drawing carbon out of the atmosphere.
  5. Using trees to offset should not just see them as ‘carbon sinks’ as this can lead to all sorts of other land use and environmental problems. Rather, funding tree planting as part of an offset should be part of a broader ecological restoration and revegetation program, with benefits in biodiversity, habitat, waterway health and protection against salinity.
  6. The project must be undertaken in Australia.

 Using a suite of emissions calculators, we estimated that we emitted 18.44 tonnes of greenhouse gases (CO2 equivalent) in 2009, which could be offset by planting around 70 trees. Ideally, we would love to plant those 70 trees ourselves, on land with which we can have an ongoing connection. We are still working on this, but in the meantime we used the Carbon Offset Guide (see box below) to find a few carbon offset providers who meet our criteria, and then selected the one that seemed best to us.

 One of the positives we have found in doing this is that it hurts financially to do it – it cost us around $600 for our 2009 emissions. This means that we are paying more for our way of life, which is exactly what we need, and we have a more direct incentive to reduce our emissions.

 However, we are also painfully aware that it still raises many conundrums. If we were to offset this level of emissions for the next fifty years (until I am almost 90), this would require planting about 3,500 trees. That doesn’t sound too bad, but if every household in Australia was to do this for the next fifty years, this would require planting over 35 billion trees, which is neither feasible nor desirable. This just goes to show that carbon offsets are no answer to our climate change challenges, and that what we need is nothing less than a radical overhaul of the carbon structure of our economy.

 The two positive aspects of thinking through offsets have been putting a price on our personal carbon pollution and linking this to thinking about how we can participate in land restoration in Australia. Our ultimate goal is to work towards ‘DIY offsetting’: that is self-imposing a price (ie. the cost of trees) on our carbon pollution and putting that money, along with our time and energy, directly into some land restoration that is not officially linked to any carbon offset system. That way, we would be taking some responsibility for our personal pollution, building a connection with the land and communities of people who live on the land, and no one would be counting or measuring the sequestered carbon as part of any supposed solution to climate change. Watch this space …


Emissions calculators:






Finding out about carbon offset providers:

The Carbon Offset Guide developed by EPA Victoria and Global Sustainability at RMIT is a good independent source of information.




[1]  McCully, P (2008) The Great Carbon Offset Swindle,  International Rivers, USA.