by Judith Curry
Kevin Anderson explains why he refused to purchase a carbon offset, and why you should steer clear of them too.
Nature has published an opinion piece by Kevin Anderson entitled The inconvenient truth of carbon offsets (complete article available online). Excerpts:
Planet Under Pressure was a major conference on the environment held in London last week. The organizers of the conference said that the event would be “as close to carbon neutral as possible”. There are good ways to achieve this noble goal: virtual engagement such as video conferencing, advice on lower-carbon travel options, and innovative registration tariffs to reward lower-carbon involvement. But, instead, the organizers chose a series of carbon-offset projects financed through a compulsory £35 (US$56) fee levied on all delegates.
Offsetting is worse than doing nothing. It is without scientific legitimacy, is dangerously misleading and almost certainly contributes to a net increase in the absolute rate of global emissions growth.
My objection to offsetting and the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) — the state-sanctioned version that operates under the Kyoto Protocol — is directed at the claims that they reduce emissions to levels at or below those that would have transpired had the activity being offset not occurred. That spurious argument neglects the various possible impacts of an offset and the repercussions of these for emissions in the longer term.
For example, if I fly to a climate conference, any claim to offset my emissions must, with a reasonable level of certainty and for a 100-year period, show that the flight emissions plus any emission consequences of the offset projects ultimately sum to zero. It is the immutable impossibility of making such long-term assurances that fundamentally challenges the value of such a claim.
The promise of offsetting triggers a rebound away from meaningful mitigation and towards the development of further high-carbon infrastructures. If offsetting is deemed to have equivalence with mitigation, the incentive to move to lower-carbon technologies, behaviours and practices is reduced accordingly.
Offsetting, on all scales, weakens present-day drivers for change and reduces innovation towards a lower-carbon future. It militates against market signals to improve low-carbon travel and video-conference technologies, while encouraging investment in capital-intensive airports and new aircraft, along with roads, ports and fossil-fuel power stations.
Where is the offset in that?
To fly, or not to fly?
Blue and Green Tomorrow has a post entitled Sustainable transport: to fly or not to fly? Subtitle: One side argues that the green movement can be enriched by air travel; the other says environmentalists must stay grounded. But who’s right? Excerpts:
Innovations that will reduce passenger planes’ considerable environmental impact may be possible, but they are not around the corner. This is unfortunate, because to fly is also to inflict the gravest damage upon the climate that a human being possibly can.
There clearly are other ways to get around, but none make the far corners of the world so quickly and easily accessible than aviation. The environmentally conscious traveller therefore has a difficult choice. Can flying be justified?
The article presents arguments for and against. The final verdict:
To an extent, the choice seems to be between what is politically possible and realistic, and what science demands. If aviation is permitted to expand as predicted, we are relying on there being unforeseen progress in alternative fuels or emission reduction. This would be a big gamble.
But then, for governments to restrict flights would require a significant shift in political will and an unprecedented international display of public opinion. Never before would a campaign have lobbied for a reduction of public freedoms on such a scale.
Beyond that, the decision is an ethical one. When you next step on a plane, do you believe it will be worth it? As with so many of the questions that the environmentally aware must ask themselves, there is no easy answer.
In the climate community, it seems to be a badge of honor to have Diamond Elite status, or whatever their particular airline of choice offers, which implies that they are flying over 100,000 miles each year. Think of all those IPCC meetings in obscure third world locations, international conferences, etc. Personally I regard it as a successful year if my flight miles were less than 25,o00 (something I’ve accomplished for almost half the years of the past decade).
The flying climate scientist typically and ‘virtuously’ purchases carbon offsets for their flight. In fact one colleague virtuously told me that her students in an energy class did projects to reduce carbon emission at the university and in their community, which covered the faculty member’s carbon footprint for the faculy member’s extensive travel. I wonder if the students are aware that their instructor viewed their carbon reduction as compensating for their travel.
I think the community of climate scientists that advocate for CO2 mitigation needs to take a serious look at their own aviation footprint. Walk the walk, and all that. My reason for not flying very much is a simple one: when I’m traveling, I don’t get any work done (i.e. research, administration, teaching, running my company, not to mention blogging). I find the occasional Workshop to be very stimulating, and there is no substitute for face-to-face, dinners, etc. But funding agency panel reviews, committee meetings, and even some conferences could be managed virtually. And then tally the cost of all this travel, with governments paying the bills.
JC challenge to the climate scientist/advocacy community: Walk the walk. Work to get your annual frequent flier miles below 25,000. Be proactive in developing best practices for virtual meetings. Figure out the magnitude of the carbon footprint that can be reduced, and the cost savings that can be ploughed back into research funding. Win-win.