Offsetting (& CDM): a guarantee for 100 years or just a clever scam?

… from a climate change perspective, is offsetting worse than doing nothing?

This commentary was prompted by the 2012 international Planet Under Pressure conference and the organisers’ desire for the event “to be as close to carbon neutral as possible”. Rather than facilitate virtual engagement, advise on lower-carbon travel options and develop innovative registration tariffs rewarding lower-carbon involvement, the organisers chose a series of offset  projects financed through a compulsory fee levied on all delegates. This piece is intended to provide a succinct account of why I consider, from a climate change perspective, that offsetting is worse than doing nothing and as such why I decided it inappropriate for me to attend my planned session at the event.
The views expressed within the piece are mine and should not be taken to represent a position of either the Tyndall Centre or any of its other researchers.  
The forthcoming Planet Under Pressure event is an opportunity for academics and thinkers from across the international community to come together to exchange viewpoints, data and understanding on a breadth of climate, environmental and wider concerns over global change. Whilst there is certainly merit in fostering a cross-fertilisation of ideas, the event itself is symptomatic of the pervasive and, as yet, intractable issue of climate change. Perhaps Planet Under Pressure will be the event that catalyses tangible and meaningful mitigation. However, without doubt it will have long lasting impacts on the climate as a consequence of the significant emissions associated with organising and hosting the event; … or will it?
The Planet Under Pressure organisers have insisted that all delegates contribute £35 to a compulsory ‘offset’ scheme, and although they acknowledge “carbon offsetting is complex and controversial”, they nevertheless conclude “it seemed appropriate to take some responsibility for greenhouse gases for an international conference.”  This position has forced me to withdraw from participation, instead I reiterate my long-held judgment that offsetting is without scientific legitimacy, is dangerously misleading and almost certainly contributes to a net increase in the absolute rate of global emissions growth.
Before outlining the reasoning for my conclusions, I would like to acknowledge explicitly that projects funded through offsets, including those associated with Planet Under Pressure, may deliver desirable improvements in development. I am strongly of the opinion that a rise in emissions from the industrialising nations is, in the short term, a good indicator of rising prosperity and consequently should be welcomed. My objection to offsetting and the Clean Development Mechanism  (CDM) arises from the assertion that such regimes reduce emissions to levels at or below those that would have transpired had the activity being offset not occurred. This objection is premised on the repeated neglect of the impacts of rebound and lock-in occurring within the ‘funding’ nation, the economic-multiplier within the ‘funded’ nations and the repercussions of all of these for emissions in the longer term.
Understanding how these impacts lead to a counterintuitive reversal of the offsetters’ claims requires a brief foray into the science of climate change and its implications for determining appropriate timeframes over which offsets should be considered.  
The Science
The science underpinning climate change makes clear that the temperature rise by around the end of this century (compared with pre-industrial levels) correlates well with the total quantity of emissions put into the atmosphere over the century. That is, the temperature rise by ~2100 relates to total emissions of long-lived greenhouse gases emitted between 2000 and 2100.
Consequently, when considering our impact we have to consider the total sum of our emissions released between 2000 and 2100; offset projects must be measured over this period. There is no point in reducing emissions in the short-run by 1 tonne if the knock-on impact is 2 tonnes emitted in 2020 or even 1.5 tonnes in say 2050. The implications of this for the concept of offsetting and CDM are profound.  
For example, if I fly to an important climate conference, any claim to offset my emissions must, with a reasonable level of certainty and for a 100-year period, demonstrate that the flight emissions plus any emission consequences of the offset projects are zero. It is the immutable impossibility of making such long-term assurances that fundamentally challenges the value of such a claim. Worse still, in a world with rising economic prosperity (fuelled primarily by coal, oil and gas), there is a high probability that offsetting projects contributing to prosperity will increase emissions, over and above those arising solely from the original activity being offset. From an emissions and climate perspective, offsetting is worse than doing nothing.
The ‘rebound’ effect (specifically relevant to industrialised, Annex 1, nations)
At a time when international commitments on climate change demand industrial nations make deep, immediate and sustained reductions in emissions, the promise of offsetting triggers a rebound away from meaningful mitigation and towards the development of further high-carbon infrastructures. The UK government’s drive towards both additional airport capacity and the exploitation of UK shale gas reserves are just two such examples. If offsetting is deemed to have equivalence with mitigation, the incentive to transition to lower carbon technologies, behaviours and practices is reduced accordingly. Moreover, as the economy prospers, offsetting facilitates fossil-fuel growth with increased lock-in to high-carbon infrastructures. Offsetting weakens not only present day drivers for change but also reduces innovation towards a lower-carbon future. It militates against market signals to improve low-carbon travel and videoconference technologies, whilst encouraging investments in capital-intensive airports and new A380 aircraft along with roads, ports and fossil fuel powerstations. 
The economic multiplier  (specifically relevant to industrialising, non-Annex 1, nations)
The science underpinning climate change makes clear that for an offset project to be genuinely low-carbon it must guarantee it does not stimulate further emissions over the subsequent century. Whilst standards and legislation around offsetting and CDM refer to economic multipliers, such ‘leakage’ is impossible to quantify with any meaningful level of certainty over the timeframes that matter. The offsetters’ claim to account for carbon leakage over the relevant timeframe presumes powers of prediction that could have foreseen the internet and low-cost airlines following from Marconi’s 1901 telegraph and the Wright brothers’ 1903 maiden flight. Difficult though it is for contemporary society to accept, ascribing any meaningful level of certainty to such long-term multiplier effects is not possible and consequently offsetting is ill-fated from the start.
The following example demonstrates how the impacts of both the rebound effect and the economic multiplier mean offsetting and the Clean Development Mechanism should not form part of a responsible mitigation strategy.

An illustration of why offsetting and the Clean Development Mechanism  

should not form part of a responsible mitigation strategy


The offsetter’s rebound:

The offsetter’s rebound:

I am requested to present at a climate conference in Australia, but am concerned about my flight emissions
An offsetting firm assures me it can eliminate my emissions by investing in a low-carbon energy project in India
I take the flight, with departure delayed by throngs of passengers pushing the airport’s capacity beyond its limit 
British Airport Authority and the London Mayor use such delays to argue for expanding airport capacity
With demand for flying set to increase, major airlines order new aircraft 
Airline executives & MPs push for increased capacity to meet demand and avoid congestion 
… noting that new aircraft, reduced congestion and offsetting help control emissions 
The government is persuaded that airport expansion is necessary to meet expected demand 
Ten years later, new runways are built, airports are under construction and new aircraft on order
The industry demonstrates a 1% p.a. reduction in emissions per passenger-km flown
The new capacity and offsetting help stimulate further growth in demand of 4% p.a. 
Consequently, absolute emissions from UK aviation rise by 3% p.a. for the next few decades 
With the UK’s new aircraft having a 30 year operating life
… older aircraft are sold on to expanding aviation markets in South America
The economic multiplier:
My offsetting investment has partially funded a medium size wind turbine for a small Indian village 
… with emissions claimed to be reduced against a hypothetical baseline of a diesel generator
The villagers now have access to electricity and so can have electric light and even run a small TV
The TV provides advertisers with a new means of accessing Indian villagers
… with one advert promoting the benefits of small petrol-fuelled mopeds
A villager buys one of these so she can more easily travel between villages
Within months other villagers have seen her on her moped, and several decide to save up to buy mopeds
Three years later offset-funded turbines etc. are providing low-carbon electric light & TVs across several villages
Within five years mopeds have become a common sight.
Another two years see an entrepreneurial villager establish a small fuel depot and garage to service the mopeds
The fuel depot incentivises another villager to invest in an old truck to transport produce between villages.
Within 30 years of the original flight, the villages and environs have new roads, many mopeds, cars and trucks. 
Not only have their emissions increased, but the emissions from the original flight are still having a warming impact - and will continue to do so for another 100 or so years. 
So what has my offset flight achieved?
Within the UK it has:
- encouraged me to take the flight – when I otherwise may not have done so
- stimulated a market and political signal to expand UK airport capacity
- stimulated a market signal to increase the purchase of new aircraft
- weakened market signals for alternative means of communicating with colleagues
- weakened incentives to consider changing behaviour with regards to transport
- helped lock the UK into high-carbon aviation infrastructure
- pressured government to renege on climate commitments rather than force early retirement of aircraft/airports
And internationally it has:
- compromised the UK government’s international leadership on climate change 
- incentivised South America to lock into a high carbon aviation infrastructure
- increased emissions through the offset-funded project in India 
… where is there any offset in all of this?
[1] In the UK, DEFRA has defined carbon offsetting as “The use of carbon credits to balance the total emissions that result from a defined activity measured in carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e)”, where carbon credits are financial instruments sold by emissions mitigation projects.
[2] The Tyndall Centre held an open debate on offsetting in 2007, with the subsequent Tyndall Briefing note available at:
[3] The Clean Development Mechanism is the offsetting mechanism in the UNFCCC Kyoto Protocol. It allows private companies to sell carbon credits from projects in developing countries to other companies or governments in industrialised countries for use against their emissions targets. Some individuals also buy these credits for personal, voluntary offsetting.
[4] Other important critiques of offsetting consider additionality (i.e. whether the project would have happened anyway, without the typically small proportion of funding from credit sales) and counter-factuality (i.e. what would emissions be in a hypothetical “business-as-usual” situation).