5 signs your climate efforts might be doing more harm than good
April 30, 2021 12:39 AM   Subscribe

Offsetting emissions is hot right now. The carbon capture market is expected to grow to $6bn by 2026. The industry’s fast-accelerating growth has attracted a number of new climate organisations to the field — but not all of them are in the business for the right reasons. In a recent expose, Disney, BlackRock and J.P. Morgan were all found to have invested in carbon offset projects that in reality had no additional positive impact on the climate. What these firms didn’t know was that one of their chosen offsetting climate organisations, Nature Conservancy Group, claimed to be preserving forests that were in fact never threatened to begin with.
posted by folklore724 (27 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

Valid offsetting schemes must be backed by good science and measurement and certified by credible auditors.

What fraction of the vast and growing demand for offsets can be served by valid offsetting schemes? That is an open question. How will we know what offsetting is valid? As many of these schemes are in more corrupt parts of the world, it's going to be difficult to get that level of certainty.

Adding to the complication, there's two kinds of international carbon markets that enable trading in offsets.

First up, there's compliance markets, which is global trading between governments. That's potentially vast. It should operate globally under the Paris Agreement rules and those rules must be strict enough to make sure that all offset trading is credible because everyone remembers the Kyoto Protocol CDM debacle last time we tried to do this... But those rules are get to be agreed, so these trades can't happen yet. Will agreement happen at the next global conference on this, COP26 in November in Glasgow? No-one knows.

Second, there's voluntary markets, ie a person or a company in a rich country buys carbon offsets from somewhere else, often in a poor country. There's a bunch of ethical issues here but I'll just keep this on track and say that the quality of offsets on the voluntary market is variable, occasionally shit, as the OP shows.

Then there's a third kind developing - government-to-government bilateral trading. This is a response to the problems with the two approaches above. It's much easier for two nations to agree bilateral rules than for the whole world to agree. And it's much more credible for nations to certify trading in offsets than for private certification bodies. Will this be kick-start trading in a way that can grow into a global system? Will this be credible enough? We're just going to have to wait and see.

In the meantime, the plant keeps warming and we keep burning fossil fuels.
posted by happyinmotion at 1:01 AM on April 30 [1 favorite]

The distraction professionals are untiringly pushing offset and carbon-capture-and-storage as the miracle fixes, and setting the illusory net-zero goals. Climate delayerism is the new climate denialism.

The climate emergency is the hardest challenge humanity has ever faced, and weaponised disinformation is making it even harder, even though the only viable path is quite clear: tell the truth and follow the best available science: emissions must drastically drop as of yesterday, and policies toward that goal (aiming for real, not “net”, zero) must be set with the most vulnerable communities placed first and foremost. Keeping carbon in the ground is a straightforward principle. All delaying tactics will compound exponentially rising risks and costs.

The will to do this is on us, there’s no jockeying/gambling out of this one.
posted by progosk at 1:04 AM on April 30 [10 favorites]

Having just checked out the article in the FPP: oh, look, it’s an opinion piece by the CEO of... a carbon-capture lobby group.

The epochal amount of money that will be flushed down the throat of these most chimerical tech schemes to “fix” this emergency... it boggles the mind - and hopefully fans the rage that will demand actual, manifest policy changes, beyond the savvy marketing ploys of these engineers’ pipedreams.
posted by progosk at 1:15 AM on April 30 [11 favorites]

I'm professionally pretty sceptical about offsets. There's a few pretty fundamental issues with them which are all due to the fact that the emissions savings from them are fundamentally not the same type of number as positive emissions.

If I burn a certain amount of coal to produce a certain amount of electricity, there is X tonnes of CO2 emissions as a result. That is a definite single point number that has gone into the air as I burn it. The counterfactual (not burning it) and producing that electricity in a different way has also happened at the point that I make the decision one way or another. Most offsets are the equivalent of me charging you not to burn coal that I have already mined... but NOT delivering electricity using an alternative source instead. Unlike the former, the latter is inherently incomplete and I could always burn that coal later. Alternatively, I might be charging you for an offset of coal that I actually know is uneconomic to extract or for which I would never get a permit to mine.

If I "offset" with a complicated land-use change, I'm trusting an enormously complex and difficult to monitor calculation about likely alternatives if I did not pay you for that change and have no way (or cynically, no incentive) to audit that. The offset also notionally happens over time. Can I count on an offset calculated over 100 years? 50? How on earth can that be guaranteed.

It is worth considering that when Stripe looked into buying offsets for their historical emissions, they paid several hundred dollars a tonne for direct air capture and storage as black carbon. There are then two alternatives: despite thinking about the problem very deeply and basically reading physics papers for fun, they somehow missed the opportunity to buy cheaper offsets or if you actually wanted to offset your emissions, this is what it would cost.

I'm not against the use of CCS, even potentially direct air capture, but they have to be seen in context, as "last resorts" for activities which we collectively can't bring ourselves to quit and which cannot possibly be handled any other way, the "net" part of net zero, and potentially as ways of correcting emissions overshoot. Treating them as handwavy ("oh we'll just offset that") solutions is a product of this systematic underpricing, our core plans should be built on things we know can be done and technologies like this are in the nice-to-have category.

Once you dismiss things which don't work, and price offsetting based on genuinely additional Direct Air Capture to permanent storage, you find that it's actually not a good solution to almost anything. Maybe aviation, the DAC boosters claim they can get to $100/tonne (currently more like $400) which would add about $100 to NYC-LON flights. I would probably prefer that we use that to get atmospheric carbon levels back down but I don't think people will give up flying so we might end up doing this. In very few other cases is it not a better idea to just not emit the carbon to begin with.

CCS has somewhat more applications but even then, when you look at the engineering challenges what you find is that it can most likely be made to work reasonably well but only on purpose built installations. That destroys the main case for CCS which was the ability to retrofit our vast stationary legacy assets. I used to be of the view that it would be useful for production of blue hydrogen as a transitional measure but I think they've missed the boat with that one, by the time that they get a blue hydrogen scheme working, power system dynamics will have shifted in such a way as to make green hydrogen cheaper and progress in emissions reductions elsewhere will make the 85% capture from methane reforming look unimpressive.
posted by atrazine at 3:59 AM on April 30 [9 favorites]

I get the impression that most of the climate change initiatives corporations and governments announce aren't designed to do anything about climate change anyway. They're designed to make it look as if the organisation involved is doing something about climate change, which is a very different thing. They're not aimed at substance, but merely PR gloss.
posted by Paul Slade at 5:40 AM on April 30 [5 favorites]

I get the impression that most of the climate change initiatives corporations and governments announce aren't designed to do anything about climate changes anyway. They're designed to make it look as if the organisation involved is doing something about climate changes, which is a very different thing. They're not aimed at substance, but merely PR gloss.

A combination of medieval indulgences and snake oil - it couldn't be more transparent.
posted by ryanshepard at 5:41 AM on April 30 [5 favorites]

I am as interested in climate solutions promoted by the extremely wealthy and the corporations they control as i am in police violence solutions promoted by police and their corrupt unions.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 6:01 AM on April 30 [4 favorites]

Nature Conservancy Group, claimed to be preserving forests that were in fact never threatened to begin with.
I had not heard these claims and the article failed to cite anything. I found this: https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2020-nature-conservancy-carbon-offsets-trees/
posted by joeyh at 6:52 AM on April 30 [2 favorites]

I'm quite curious about The Nature Conservancy's role here. TNC has been a happy recipient of greenwashing dollars for many years, but what makes them such effective greenwashers is that they do actually put a lot of resources into conserving ecosystems that would otherwise be at great risk. So if the money paid for carbon offsets isn't actually going into forest preservation, what's happening instead? Is that money getting funneled directly into executives' and contractors' pockets? Is it going to important work that doesn't have an easily quantifiable carbon impact (like the incremental improvements at the Pennsylvania preserve)? Or is it actually still mostly going to conservation, but the actual cost of conserving forests that are actually at risk is higher than the carbon-offset market will bear?

Answering those questions would probably require a bit more transparency from TNC than they seem to have been inclined to provide to Bloomberg.
posted by Not A Thing at 7:10 AM on April 30 [4 favorites]

I'm quite curious about The Nature Conservancy's role here.

Yes, that is exactly what the CCS-lobby person wants you to focus on. Not on the fact that neither offset nor CCS will do anything towards the drastic emissions reductions that are critically fundamental here and now.

It's almost unfathomable to imagine what it will take to pull our collective gaze (and resolve) away from these feverdream diversion tactics....
posted by progosk at 8:33 AM on April 30 [4 favorites]

One of their chosen offsetting climate organizations, Nature Conservancy Group, claimed to be preserving forests that were in fact never threatened to begin with.

This was the plot of a King of the Hill episode in 2008, FFS.
posted by box at 9:04 AM on April 30

Carbon capture is just a distracting bit of greenwashing, same as plastic recycling was.

Literally the whole point of burning fossil fuels is that turning carbon into CO2 is a process that produces energy. It takes energy more to convert that CO2 back into carbon than the original process released. Entropy always wins.

You **CAN NOT** get X tonnes of CO2 by burning fossil fuels to make Y kilowatt hours and then spend less than Y kilowatt hours turning that CO2 back into easily stored carbon. It is impossible.

Some of them are talking about capturing the CO2 and liquifying it, or even just storing it under pressure. That's also a distraction.

Atmospheric filtration to remove CO2 currently in the atmosphere is simply too expensive and processes far too little at a time to be worthwhile. There's about 4 **BILLION** cubic kilometers of atmosphere. Even if you've got a machine that can process a cubic kilometer per second (and you don't) that's still 126 years to process our entire atmosphere.

Capture when they talk about grabbing the gas after the fossil fuels are burned is at least vaguely plausible, but storage is problematic at best and produces a ticking time bomb while you wait for the storage to fail and release all that carbon.

The only solution is to stop burning fossil fuels.

That's it. Anyone talking about anything except ending our use of fossil fuels is bullshitting us.

Forests are nice and all, but current forests aren't actually net carbon sinks. Trees die, rot, and in the process the CO2 they turned into trees gets released back into the atmosphere. Only new growth actually captures carbon.

In theory a managed forest where trees are felled and the wood is stored in a cave or whatever so it's never burned and never rots could actually remove carbon from the atmosphere. In practice no one is doing that. Starting entirely new forests won't remove as much carbon as you'd hope, and it would take massive irrigation (which is problematic) because we'd have to grow them in places that aren't already occupied by people or forests.

The only solution is to stop burning fossil fuels.

And none of the big policy makers are willing to even suggest that completely ending fossil fuels is, and must be, the end game.
posted by sotonohito at 9:35 AM on April 30 [4 favorites]

Trees die, rot, and in the process the CO2 they turned into trees gets released back into the atmosphere. Only new growth actually captures carbon.

Forestry is an extremely complex science, and so it's not actually accurate to put it that way. (If you have an hour, you might enjoy how Larry Evans describes soil carbon issues and climate futures.)

The only solution is to stop burning fossil fuels.

Also, ignoring "dead" trees' trophic potential by framing them as... yet another fuel.
posted by progosk at 10:47 AM on April 30 [1 favorite]

claimed to be preserving forests that were in fact never threatened to begin with.

Now that's efficient maximisation of shareholder value.
posted by acb at 12:07 PM on April 30

A similar comment by Canadian climate policy experts Nicholas Rivers, Kathryn Harrison, and Mark Jaccard.
In the real world it is much more likely that introducing carbon offsets to an existing regulation will cause overall emissions to increase.

This is because many offset credits granted to unregulated sources do not reflect real or permanent emission reductions. In these cases, unregulated actors receive an offset credit but may reduce emissions by less than a full tonne of carbon. On the other side, regulated firms that purchase an offset credit are able to increase their emissions by one full tonne of carbon. This trade leads to an overall increase in emissions.
Their recommendations:
First, offset credits used as a compliance option for regulated firms should be restricted to activities that are near-certain to deliver permanent, additional emission reductions. The list of such actions is small (and costly), focused especially on activities that capture and permanently store greenhouse gases underground.

Second, activities such as forest and soil carbon sequestration, which can generate uncertain but meaningful emission reductions, should be encouraged directly using government regulation or incentives. Removing these activities from the industrial offset system will ensure that Canada's industrial greenhouse gas mandates achieve the emission reductions for which they are designed.
I'm more optimistic about direct air capture (taking CO2 out of the atmosphere) than other people on this thread. Canada's got a national carbon price floor of C$40/t, rising $10/t next year and then $15/t each year after that, reaching $170/t in 2030. At that price, direct air capture starts to look economically viable. David Roberts, writing in 2018:
The headline news from the paper is that the cost of capturing a ton of CO2 — estimated at around $600 in 2011 — has fallen to between $94 and $232. Almost any source of renewable energy can prevent a ton of carbon for cheaper than that, but still, down at the lower end, beneath $100, DAC starts to look viable in a low-carbon world.
Roberts also notes that credits under California's Low Carbon Fuel Standard are trading for US$150/t.
posted by russilwvong at 12:53 PM on April 30

I'm more optimistic about direct air capture

There are no technologies that do this at scale, nor any that are projected to do so within the obligatory timeframe to bring emissions to zero, in order to stay within the limits agreed in Paris.

I’m not sure optimism is the apt word here.
posted by progosk at 1:05 PM on April 30

It's pretty clear how to decarbonize power and transport. Replace coal and gas with renewables, nuclear, hydro, or geothermal; replace gasoline-burning vehicles with electric vehicles; use regulations and/or carbon pricing. According to Mark Jaccard, these two sectors account for more than half of future global emissions.

What's going to be more difficult and slow is figuring out how to decarbonize industrial processes. That's why "negative emissions" technologies like direct air capture are so important.
posted by russilwvong at 5:10 PM on April 30 [1 favorite]

Thanks everyone for this thread! I'm in the process of looking for a new job (software), and one of the ones I am interested is a company trying to build a market to exchange preservation of forests for carbon credits. It's got some inventory, auditing, and pooling problems.

I have had some concerns that they are bankrolled by BP, and could likely be an example of greenwashing. Now I'm concerned that preserving forest isn't an effective approach at all compared to new, rapid growth. Any reading on the subject appreciated.
posted by butterstick at 5:23 PM on April 30

butterstick: My read (from Rivers/Harrison/Jaccard) is that forest preservation is a good thing, but should probably not be tied to carbon offsets.
A similar phenomenon occurred in British Columbia, where offset credits were authorized for improved forest management and measures taken to avoid deforestation. B.C.'s auditor general found that emission reductions from forest conservation were significantly overstated, with a substantial fraction of offset credits not representing real emission reductions.

Also worrisome is the fact that forest and soil carbon storage is likely not permanent. If offset credits are authorized for activities that only temporarily store carbon, the result will again be an overall increase in emissions, because the offset credit will allow regulated firms to increase their own emissions, and these emissions effectively remain in the atmosphere permanently. A non-permanent emission reduction used to offset a permanent emission increase leads to an eventual increase in carbon in the atmosphere.
posted by russilwvong at 7:31 PM on April 30 [1 favorite]

Most CCS will be related to existing enhanced oil extraction in Houston, Lake Charles, and Kemper County, MS, along the Denbury pipeline, where the USA has the majority of its petrochemical infrastructure.

See the Center for Houston's Future plans from last October.

Therefore, it is steeped in racism of those facilities. These were the same facilities that failed under the 'clean coal' agenda.

These are the same states that allow chemical air pollution to kill one out of every ten thousand residents (US standard is one in one million).

These facilities are situated in the Gulf Coast, a region under near constant climate emergency since 2020.

So, if you are from the US, please understand the history of these efforts. $900 million has been spent on CCS already, and not a pound of carbon gas gone anywhere.

Critiques of the nature conservancy are good, but
posted by eustatic at 8:29 AM on May 1 [3 favorites]

Here's an accident from the Denbury CO2 pipeline from last year

There have been three of these " Green Cloud" incidents lately, and the CO2 seems to also have H2S mixed in. Both gases travel along the ground in the case of pipeline ruptures
posted by eustatic at 8:35 AM on May 1

Elina Kajosaari is the CEO of Compensate a non-profit company that sells carbon offsets and related solutions to help companies manage their CO2 output. Her company competes with Nature Conservancy for green dollars and donations. The fact that this conflict of wasn't disclosed by the hosts of this blog makes me suspect the entire thing is less than credible and just a vehicle for capturing PR dollars.
posted by interogative mood at 2:33 PM on May 2 [1 favorite]

Huh, I didn't realize Compensate was a non-profit. If you don't trust Kajosaari, you can read the Bloomberg article on Nature Conservancy, from December 2020: These Trees Are Not What They Seem. How the Nature Conservancy, the world’s biggest environmental group, became a dealer of meaningless carbon offsets.
posted by russilwvong at 3:52 PM on May 3

One of their chosen offsetting climate organizations, Nature Conservancy Group, claimed to be preserving forests that were in fact never threatened to begin with.

This was the plot of a King of the Hill episode in 2008, FFS.
posted by box

Fake threats against forests have been lucrative since 1980, when the US Clean Water Act required mitigation for impacts to wetland forests.

If you are a timber company, you can threaten to level a forest, then sell that same forest on the credit market to allocate the threat. You get more credits the worse your threats were!

The market was mostly paid for by oil companies, the largest sector still cutting up wetlands. The oil industry has a long history of legislative cunning, and promptly set to work sabotaging the federal regulatory system to lower credit prices.

Look at the history of US WRDA and Army Corps policy for special exemptions to environmental laws regarding the Gulf Coast, and fiscal caps on implementation of the US Clean Water Act.

But again, all the wetlands of the united states are on the Gulf Coast, so if you are not in Texas, Florida, or Louisiana, you don't know. The US environmental movement tends to be incurious and dismissive about our states because environmentalists don't command legislative action in these states, and there s a lot of prejudice, much of it anti-black and anti-indigenous.

Most of the carbon pollution of the united states, comes from the I 10 corridor, but these states are considered "red" and so not really considered and equal part of the country, when it comes to environmental policy. But, the carbon future of the world will be won or lost on the I 10 corridor, though, so I hope DC starts paying attention.
posted by eustatic at 7:53 AM on May 5

So, I don't really blame Nature Conservancy for caving, you have to realize, they are competing in a market system with Weyerhouser.

No one complains about the Timber companies who are setting the stupid policies for their own benefit!

Nature Conservancy forests remain 2000% more ecologically productive than Weyerhouser mitigation projects, and they have to create that value while receiving the same amount of money as Weyerhouser.

I do blame Nature Conservancy for continuing to spout market-mantra BS, the, when it clearly has failed. They are classist to the bone.
posted by eustatic at 7:59 AM on May 5

The knock against the Nature Conservancy seems to come down to whose analysis you believe about the possibility some stands of timber will be harvested and to what extent the analysis that the stands of timber in the area in question were being well maintained or in decline. The headline doesn’t seem to match the evidence provided in the article.

The example cited was a private wildlife sanctuary that had large stands of mature trees under its management and limited financial resources to maintain the property. These trees are extremely valuable and were not protected by anything other than the sanctuary owner’s intentions. Now they are protected by a permanent easement and the non-profit land owner has extra funds to help maintain the property.
Without the easement there would have been regular pressure to sell some of those trees to find the organization. Or worst case scenario the non-profit gets hit with a lawsuit or just goes broke and the land ends up sold at auction.
posted by interogative mood at 12:17 PM on May 5

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