What a 16-year-old climate activist want you to know about carbon offsetting

Climate activist Scarlett Westbrook spills the truth about carbon offsetting, and explains just why the method might not actually work.

I’m sure most of us have been made to feel like we should be carbon offsetting (usually through nicely designed infographics). But whilst the schemes sound great – what’s not to love about being eco friendly without having to lift a finger? – they fall short on their promise. In fact, carbon offsetting lets governments and corporations shift the blame for climate breakdown onto individuals, contributes to colonial human rights abuses – and often it doesn’t even work. By Scarlett Westbrook.

So… How does it work?

In a nutshell, carbon offsetting is a way of paying for others to reduce emissions or absorb CO2 to compensate for your own emissions, the idea being that the overall amount of CO2 is maintained or even reduced. The schemes work by planting trees, building solar panel plants or distributing low-carbon stoves, and are usually in colonised or previously colonised countries. They are an easy way for the big dogs to say, okay, not my problem! (Even though these richer nations disproportionately contribute to emissions.)

And get this. It doesn’t actually work.

You heard that right. As Roger Tyers, a research fellow in offsetting at the University of Southampton, points out, ‘a plane that flies today emits carbon today’. Those impacts are also felt today. Projects planning to reduce atmospheric CO2 at some unspecified point (newly-planted trees take around 20 years to capture the CO2 promised by offsetting schemes, assuming they are fully protected against natural disaster) do nothing to tackle this. And that’s not all. Trees can die prematurely and release their ‘stored’ carbon, and renewable power plants can be built but not used, meaning offset projects become sources of emissions. Fossil fuels need to be left in the ground if we want to come close to achieving carbon zero by 2030.

And here’s the bigger picture. 

Carbon offsetting is tied to issues at the core of the climate crisis: colonialism, abuse of power and unsustainable depletion of natural resources. Offset schemes put the burden of decarbonisation on colonised and previously colonised countries, asking them to decarbonise quickly and without the infrastructure needed to have a fair go at it. At the same time, farming land is used for offsets, meaning communities cannot create local, sustainable food structures, leading to ‘potentially devastating impacts on food security’ (UN report). The offset industry is also complicit in abuses of power. The UN and World Bank’s offset scheme was found to be taking part in genocidal land grabs where the Indigenous Sengwer and Ogiek people in Kenya were violently removed from their homes and ancestral lands without warning or consent in order to make space for ‘reforestation’.

So what do we do now?

As a teenage climate activist, my response is simple: we must unite behind calls for a Green New Deal. This means a 10-year, government-led mobilisation to decarbonise the economy (which will also create millions of green jobs and bridging massive societal inequality gaps!). This would give us a chance to make up for the disasters of the past, whilst buckling us in for a road towards a greener, better and more equitable future. 

I get it, I promise

It’s understandable to want to shake off the guilt from car trips into town, but we can’t let our guilty consciences lead to widespread abuse of power and even more carbon problems. It doesn’t make sense! It’s time to shoot for a goal for climate justice, ensuring we have a global, community-led transition to decarbonisation that doesn’t leave anyone behind.