Secondary Forest in the Tapajós region of the Brazilian Amazon

‘Net zero is not zero’: carbon offsetting focus at COP26 under criticism

Image credit: Ricardo Dalagnol

A coalition of human rights and environmental groups have attacked the focus on carbon offsetting by developed nations at COP26. Carbon offsetting, along with emerging carbon capture and storage technologies, are being widely relied on to meet net-zero CO2 targets.

Greenpeace, Amnesty International, ActionAid, Global Witness, Articulacao dos Povos Indigenas do Brasil (APIB), and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) have jointly criticised carbon offsetting as a distraction or scam that fuels land grabs for tree planting in developing countries, imperilling indigenous communities.

The coalition has called on governments to raise their ambitions and set “real” zero-carbon emissions targets.

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, the world must reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 in order to keep global temperature rises to within 1.5°C; this is critical for protecting small island nations and averting the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. Although most nations – and many businesses and local authorities – have made some commitment to reaching net-zero CO2 by 2050, many plans rely on carbon offsetting and nascent carbon capture and storage technology that remains unproven on a large scale.

In particular, carbon offsetting has been criticised by the coalition as a smokescreen used by developed nations to avoid cutting their CO2 emissions in real terms.

Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace, criticised carbon offsetting as a “scam” a “greenwash” and “an accounting trick whereby emissions are taken off the ledger of polluters”.

Carbon offsetting will never be able to absorb the sheer volume of greenhouse gases countries plan to emit under their current net-zero plans, the coalition said. Expert groups such as the International Energy Agency have backed the development and deployment of negative-emissions schemes on the basis that they are necessary to cut CO2 emissions fast enough – particularly for hard-to-abate industries such as aviation and steelmaking – but warn that direct air capture and tree planting are not substitutes for urgent and drastic decarbonisation.

The coalition said that already demand for land for tree planting used in carbon offsetting schemes is forcing indigenous communities – many of which have protected forests for centuries – from their ancestral land.

“Too many of these net-zero targets rely on carbon offsetting to avoid real emission cuts, providing a convenient smokescreen to hide climate inaction,” said Teresa Anderson, climate policy co-ordinator at ActionAid. “But growing demand for offsets will drive land grabs for new tree plantations. There isn’t enough available land on the planet to offset the pollution hiding in thousands of net-zero pledges, and too many hopes rest on long-shot technologies that will probably never work.”

“To have a chance of averting climate catastrophe, we need to see real transformation and emissions brought down to real zero.”

Seema Joshi, campaigns director at Global Witness, said: “The biggest polluters are using net-zero promises to delay climate action. Far-off voluntary targets and pledges to somehow offset their impacts in the future are distractions which they hope will allow them to continue to expand production of fossil fuels.”

“Net zero is not zero – if we are to have any hope of avoiding catastrophic climate breakdown, we need the big emitters to reduce greenhouse gas emissions now.”

Speaking to The Independent at COP26, Indigenous Environmental Network executive director Tom Goldtooth criticised carbon offsetting as “part of a system that privatises the air that we breathe”.

“It allows polluters to buy and sell permits to pollute instead of cutting emissions at the source,” he said. “It lets governments and corporations pretend they are doing something about climate change when they are not.”

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