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Elton John and the inconvenient truth about carbon offsetting

21 August 2019

10:08 AM

21 August 2019

10:08 AM

Elton John did his royal pals Harry and Meghan few favours when he revealed he’d bought carbon offsets for the couple’s recent trip to Nice in Sir Elton’s private jet. It was also a mistake. ‘Offsetting is worse than doing nothing,’ according to Manchester university professor Kevin Anderson, one of the vanishingly small number of people in the climate world who actually walks the climate talk. ‘It is without scientific legitimacy, is dangerously misleading and almost certainly contributes to a net increase in the absolute rate of global emissions growth.’

Offsetting Harry and Meghan’s emissions must demonstrate ‘with a reasonable level of certainty’ that their flight emissions – plus any emissions consequences from the offsets – adds up to zero over a 100-year period. ‘It is the immutable impossibility of making such long-term assurances that fundamentally challenges the value of such a claim,’ Anderson has argued.

Anderson’s argument against offsets finds empirical support in a May 2019 ProPublica feature by environmental journalist Lisa Song which shreds them of all vestiges of credibility. Reviewing carbon offset projects around the globe, Song found that they hadn’t offset the emissions they were supposed to, or they had brought gains that were quickly reversed – or that couldn’t be accurately measured to begin with. ‘Ultimately, the polluters got a guilt-free pass to keep emitting CO₂, but the forest preservation that was supposed to balance the ledger either never came or didn’t last,’ Song concluded.

Ahead of the 2014 football World Cup in Brazil, Fifa bought carbon credits covering 331,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, ostensibly to offset the entire carbon footprint of the matches, to be deployed in a portfolio of projects in Brazil. One was a reforestation project in the Brazilian state of Rondônia. The project was suspended last year amid reports that loggers destroyed more trees than all the credits sold.

In a forestry project in Cambodia supported by the Clinton Foundation, 88 per cent of the area to be protected was forested at the project’s outset. Thanks to satellite imagery analysis, Song found that the forested area had almost halved to 46 per cent. One area that had started out 90 per cent forested now has none. ‘Offsets themselves are doing damage,’ Larry Lohmann, an academic and climate activist, told Song.

‘Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because they have indulgence letters will be eternally damned, together with their teachers,’ Martin Luther wrote in his Ninety Five Theses of 1517 that he nailed to the door of Wittenberg’s All Saints Church, starting the Protestant Reformation. Rather like carbon offsets, the medieval papacy issued indulgences to rich sinners on the basis they would do fictitious good works. In practice, indulgences were a cynical cash-raising exercise purportedly absolving the wealthy of sin. As much or perhaps more than Luther’s theology, reaction against indulgences and the venality of the Vatican helped bring about the destruction of the medieval Catholic Church.

So too with today’s secular religion of climate change. Holes in the science are amenable to any number of fixes by the priesthood of climate scientists. What will bring about its downfall will be its stench of hypocrisy and its impact on people’s lives.

Climate change has become ethics for the wealthy; preaching planetary salvation to justify their privileged position in society and telling the rest of us what we shouldn’t do, while forcing us to pay more for it into the bargain.

Britain’s worst blackout in over a decade, when a single lightning strike earlier this month knocked out a power station and a wind farm, ‘should never have happened in the first place,’ says professor Dieter Helm, Britain’s foremost energy economist. ‘If power cuts can happen when just two power generators drop off, then something fundamental has gone wrong.’ It has.

Rupert Darwall is author of Green Tyranny


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