When something draws the ire of John Oliver it is usually a sign that topic is about to leave academic conversations and hit the public lexicon. His latest episode on carbon offsets is a thorough takedown, focusing on the absence of regulation, potential for corporate greenwashing, and lack of actual impact. For those who haven’t watched yet, here are some main talking points:
When someone first learns about carbon offsets via an episode of John Oliver, they’re liable to repeat his talking points without pursuing further information or perspectives. I am guilty of having done this with many of his other episodes on topics where my prior knowledge was limited. And compared to many outlets where people get info (i.e., social media), a 20-minute investigative report by Oliver is a more nuanced view than an average consumer will receive. However, on this particular topic I wanted to add a few other considerations that I think are important.
As Dr. Asmeret Berhe points out in this tweet, many of the goals behind carbon offsets are ultimately thing we want. Not only do they remove CO2 from the atmosphere or prevent future potential CO2 emissions, but nature-based climate solutions can provide environmental co-benefits that increase the impact of the funding. In the example of soil, changing management strategies to increase carbon in the soil will also generally increase water retention (resilience against drought), structural integrity (resilience to erosion), and nutrient retention (reduction of fertilizer run off and downstream eutrophication). Protecting our forests, planting new trees, and improving soil health, when done responsibly and with intention, can all be important tools in building a greener future. Allocating greater resources toward those initiatives can often help overcome financial barriers and incentivize early adopters, particularly in agriculture. Finally, even if we halt fossil fuel emissions today, we still need to draw down CO2 from the atmosphere and nature based climate solutions are one way we can start to address that.
All of this doesn’t change the fact that carbon offsets allow companies to continue operating as usual without fundamentally decreasing the CO2 emissions of their operations. That is a huge and very real problem. But rather than throwing out the concept of carbon offsets entirely, perhaps we can iteratively develop the concept to increase the effect of such programs. Channeling corporate funding toward green initiatives is a useful path that can parallel government programs, or when Washington ties itself in knots, can continue providing capital when other sources of revenue are uncertain.
What could carbon offsets or credits look like if they were tightly regulated with high standards and metrics for impact, not just practice? If more of the money were allocated to independent monitoring and verification? If there was one global standard for carbon offset projects? Corporations will always find loopholes that maximize their profit, but we can find ways to close those loopholes and channel funding toward scientifically backed causes. These companies are willing to pay for their license to operate, so we should increase the standards to which we hold these companies and leverage their money for greater effect. And we can do all of this while also demanding a decrease in CO2 emissions.
Carbon offsets are certainly an imperfect system. But maybe it’s a system worth fixing rather than abandoning. I’m personally curious to see how carbon credit and offsets will continue to evolve in the future as part of the larger portfolio of tools to address the climate crisis.
-Another perspective on the John Oliver piece from Dr. Madeleine Nicholas
-How to Save a Planet podcast: Can the World Cup be Carbon Neutral
-The Carbon Curve: The Fatal Flaw with Most Carbon Offsets
-Women in Ag Science podcast episode with Dr. Asmeret Berhe
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An ecosystem ecologist perspective on the conversations around natural climate solutions.