Opinion: Why We Should Reject Carbon Offsets

by James Williams and Johnny Mao

Last year, Puget Sound Energy (PSE) purchased a sponsored article in the Seattle Times, titled ‘Cleaning up your climate footprint with carbon offsets’.  In what is essentially a paid advertisement, the writer claims that carbon offsets are a viable option to “reduce long-term greenhouse gas-related devastation”. The author presents carbon offsets as a way of atoning for our individual roles in generating pollution. 

What is a Carbon Offset anyway? 

Carbon offsets are projects that claim, unverifiably, to save specified amounts of emissions. Their proponents treat these supposed savings as if they were equivalent to actual emissions reductions. The energy industry designs carbon offsets to be cheaper than actual emissions reductions, so that offsets are attractive to businesses that want the cheapest way out of reducing emissions at the source. Under the Kyoto Protocol, most offset projects are located in countries in the Global South and are set up to  “compensate” for continued and increased pollution in industrialized countries (the Kyoto Protocol’s Annex 1). Offset projects are undertaken by companies, international financial institutions and governments.

Why should Indigenous, Black, and Brown communities care?

At the Our Power Convening, put on by Climate Justice Alliance in Richmond, California, Mari Rose Taruc of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network shared how environmental justice groups in California were compelled to fight  carbon offsets. Taruc spoke of how carbon offsets generated millions of dollars, without benefiting communities sacrificed to live near polluting industries. Corporations were able to buy carbon offsets, and just continue emitting toxic pollution into the air and water.

We now understand that carbon offsets have never truly compensated communities for the destruction wrought by extraction and pollution.

PSE itself has doubled down on producing more carbon, drilling, and fracking by proposing the Tacoma Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) pipeline, which will move 44 million cubic feet of liquified natural gas per day. The Tacoma LNG is a direct affront to the Puyallup Tribe, putting their treaty rights and community at risk first and worst.

No More False Solutions

Our only way out of the climate crisis must focus on solutions that keep fossil fuels in the ground.

If we are to prevent the even more drastic effects of climate change in the coming years, research from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that global temperatures should not rise more than 1.5°C (3.6° F) above pre-industrial levels. That means leaving in the ground just over 30% of the earth’s oil reserves, 50% of gas reserves, and more than 80% of coal reserves.

Carbon offsets ignore local pollution impacts disproportionately borne by communities of color, Indigenous people and workers.  Published by the Washington State Department of Health, the Washington Health Disparities Map illustrates these very disproportionate impacts in our very own backyard. Environmental exposures and effects have disproportionately hit residents across the spectrum of location, race, and socioeconomic status across Washington. If we want real solutions to protect our health, we must prevent these exposures and effects from entering our bodies and communities in the first place.

We must fight false solutions, because the lives of our loved ones depend on it.  Until we win, our communities will continue to get sicker, die sooner, and bear the increasingly higher cost of the climate crisis.

Carbon offsets do not reduce emissions. In fact, they do not even compensate for emissions, as they are advertised to do.  The truth is that offsets merely create an illusion that something is being done about climate change.

We call out this misleading initiative from Puget Sound Energy.  And we reject the false solution of ‘cleaning up your climate footprint with carbon offsets’.  Expanding the carbon offset market to accept individual investments will benefit Puget Sound Energy above all else, rather than help provide credible solutions for the climate crisis.

James Williams and Johnny Mao are organizers with Got Green