Carbon Offsets, Why They Don’t Work, and How Companies Use Them to Pollute More

John Oliver recently released an episode of Last Week Tonight where he dives into climate offset, carbon neutrality, and how big companies are lying to us.

Oliver points out that as climate change continues to get worse, more and more companies are buying carbon offsets and promising that they are working on becoming carbon neutral. These big companies are claiming to be “net zero” and making it seem like they are not releasing any carbon into the atmosphere. However, carbon offsets don’t work like that.

Companies in recent years have been all buzzing about becoming carbon neutral and purchasing carbon offsets to do so. Carbon offsets are meant to make up for the emissions that the companies are putting into the atmosphere by doing other projects such as planting trees or building wind turbines. They say that by doing these things, they are helping remove just as much carbon as they are putting out. If only it were that easy.

Oliver cites one study that found that two-thirds of companies in heavily polluting industries relied on carbon offsets rather than focusing on emission reductions to reach carbon neutrality. Oliver says that if the idea of investing money to make your carbon footprint disappear sounds too good to be true, it’s because it is.

“Study after study has indicated that most offsets available on the market don’t reliably reduce emissions, and yet offsets are now the backbone of the environmental policies of many of the biggest polluters on the planet,” he points out.

“Offsets allow businesses that can’t immediately reduce their emissions to balance things out by buying emissions reductions somewhere else,” Oliver explained.

“But exactly how offsets are bullshit is really interesting,” he continued, “because it’s easy to say that you are reducing carbon emissions but it is much harder to prove it. And the truth is, there aren’t many checks and balances in place to prevent abuse.”
JP Morgan, for example, claimed that they reached carbon neutrality in 2020. Yes, JP Morgan, is one of the biggest investors in fossil fuels in the world. To reach carbon neutrality, the company bought $1 million worth of offsets to protect an area in Pennsylvania called Hawk Mountain, which turns out, is not under any threat of deforestation.

“The problem with carbon offsets is everyone wants to believe in them,” said Oliver. “Buyers want a cheap way to make a big claim, and sellers want money for doing as little as possible. And ideally, there’d be an entity in the middle charged with keeping both sides honest.”

However, there is not. There are supposed to be neutral third parties who keep track of the effectiveness of potential offsets, but these registries are not reliable. Those entities are called carbon offset registries, which are supposed to be neutral third parties who sign off on the efficacy of potential offsets.

“Technically, you or I could start a carbon registry. And given that they are paid by the companies selling the offsets, it will not surprise you to learn that many experts say their standards are far too low.”

These companies are purchasing ‘carbon offsets’ just so that they can pollute more while driving this false claim that they are green and doing what’s best for the planet while not emitting any carbon.

Many of these companies ‘offset’ their carbon emissions by planting trees. However, Oliver points out that there is not even enough space to plant trees for companies to meet this goal. An estimate found that there are only 500 million hectares of land that could be used for new forests.

“The bottom line is, we have an offset system that places profits over science, and the rules regulating it are just far too lax,” Oliver said.

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