Carbon offsets

:: politics, science

People attacking carbon offsets or net zero emissions are attacking the wrong target and harming their cause. The problem is that the things we call ‘carbon offsets’ are not carbon offsets and ‘net zero’ is not net zero: they are lies. That’s what they should attack.

There’s nothing wrong with carbon offsets or net zero. In fact something like them really has to happen if anyone ever wants to do anything which is not in itself carbon-neutral. If you, say, want to buy a bike made of metal then the production of that bike more-or-less certainly released some carbon into the atmosphere, because smelting metal ore does that, even when you source the energy for the smelting from non-fossil sources, as you use coke to pull oxygen out of the ore & releasing \(\mathrm{CO_2}\) into the atmosphere. Perhaps it’s possible to make metal production carbon-neutral (probably it isn’t) but it’s not possible to make everything carbon-neutral. If you eat meat or dairy products then that’s definitely not carbon-neutral. Breathing is not carbon-neutral.

Perhaps it would be possible to make everything carbon-neutral in detail: steelmakers could also become planters of trees, every cattle farmer would grow enough arable to offset their carbon & methane emissions, everyone who breathed would spend some time planting things (so, no cities in this world) and so on. That’s … not a world many people want to live in: it’s pretty close to a mediaeval world where almost everyone has to spend a certain amount of time working on the land.

Instead you do it by some kind of carbon offset. The metal-refiner arranges for someone else to remove as much (or more, since the world really needs to be carbon-negative for quite a long time) carbon from the atmosphere as they emit into it. And one way of doing that is to just have a price (it’s not a fine, it’s actually a price!) for carbon (you could also do it by administrative fiat: it doesn’t matter in terms of the carbon but I can’t see the US doing that). Then every process does not need to be in-detail carbon-neutral (or carbon-negative for a long time to come) and you can ship the carbon-neutrality around so that the whole system is carbon-neutral (negative). And you can have cities again, which is great. Net zero is not a bad term and neither is carbon offset: it’s the only way you get to do it unless you want to live in the 14th century.

That’s not the problem with ‘carbon offsets’ (note the quotes) as they currently are. There are two problems: firstly carbon emission is substantially underpriced, which requires worldwide cooperation, which isn’t going to happen, to fix; and secondly that they’re just a con: ‘carbon offsets’ are not, in fact, carbon offsets.

It’s very like what happened in the years leading to 2008: there was a shitload of risk in crappy loans which was going to cause some horrible problem, but everyone liked the crappy loans because they got to charge high interest rates on them and get rich. So a bunch of people with physics degrees (I have a physics degree) waved their hands and did some magical mixing of this risk with lower risk which made it seem to go away, so there could be more crappy loans and more risk which in turn could be magicked away. Except they weren’t very good physicists because they didn’t understand that there are conservation laws here and you don’t get to cheat those laws any more than you get to cheat conservation of momentum: they’re just as basic. I don’t completely understand the conservation laws because they have to do with the correlation of risks – you can mix a number of high risks and end up with a lower one if the underlying risks are uncorrelated – and I can’t hack the statistics: but they’re there. Well, in fact, at least some of the people who did this almost certainly knew exactly what was going on, but money had destroyed their morals. And the consequence of this was financial collapse in 2008 and brexit, Trump and creeping fascism a few years later.

‘Carbon offsets’ do a similar trick: you’re buying, way too cheaply, some token which says that the carbon you source into the atmosphere will be sunk from it by someone else else, but either that never actually happens, or it only happens at some unspecified future date, which is the same thing. A conservation law – this time an easy one which is conservation (or reduction) of \(\mathrm{CO_2}\) in the atmosphere as a consequence of your actions – is being violated, again. And this is violation is done by a similar trick to what happened all obfuscated by some complex process of mixing the ‘offsets’ together such that it’s not apparent that there’s nothing (or some unspecified future thing which is the same as nothing) at the far end of the network of obfuscation. It’s an elaborate shell game by which ‘carbon offsets’ are turned into money by the players and no carbon is actually removed from the atmosphere.

So, I wish that people would attack the right thing: saying ‘net zero is bad’ is wrong because net zero (net negative) is all we can ever realistically do and a completely satisfactory solution to the problem. Saying ‘carbon offsets are bad’ is wrong because carbon offsets are a perfectly reasonable approach to achieving net zero. The problem is not net zero or carbon offsets, it’s that the things we call ‘carbon offsets’ are not actually carbon offsets, and what we call ‘net zero’ is not actually net zero.

And as long as people attack the wrong problem they won’t solve the real one. I mean, we’re obviously not going to solve the real one anyway, but we might as well at least try. It’s the same idiocy as ‘greens’ attacking nuclear power because spooky frightening or people attacking vaccines because tiny risk of clotting from vaccine is somehow more frightening than really fucking big risk of dying, horribly, of CV19.