David Stone

by David Stone

August 24, 2022

John Oliver is a brilliant comedian, and his shows typically strike that wonderfully unlikely balance between jokes, exasperation, and investigative journalism.

That he often seems to deliver his point right on the nose, meant his latest on carbon offsetting was particularly disappointing.

Like a lot of current criticism on the topic, Oliver found a handful of examples of poor projects or shonky corporate claims and used these to conclude that all offsetting is a fraud. It’s the equivalent of pointing to a few inept or dishonest reporters to argue that all journalism is bad, or for that matter, naming a few unfunny comedians and making the same inference about comedy.

He stitches this logical fallacy together with many of the old tropes and biases against offsetting that, while perhaps relevant 10, 15 years ago, certainly do not apply to anywhere near the same degree in today’s voluntary carbon market.

Yes, there are bad actors

Fish around in news archives and you’ll find plenty of examples of carbon cowboys and companies willing to pay for a bit of environmental window dressing. What that tells you is there are bad actors in the sector. There are bad actors in every sector and every walk of life. Always have been, always will be. This still says nothing about the concept or the effectiveness of offsetting as a whole.

Fortunately, in today’s post-Paris Agreement age, with the level of scrutiny on corporate behaviour and climate claims, the sort of unscrupulous, slippery opportunism has far fewer places to hide.

We have credible independent science-based standards for project developers; there are third-party auditors and rating agencies; public consultations and transparent registries. Corporations are under greater pressure from shareholders to make meaningful emissions cuts. And there is a growing importance to adhere to independent, multi-stakeholder governance bodies, like the Science-based Targets Initiative, the Integrity Council for the Voluntary Carbon Market and the (confusingly similar sounding) Voluntary Carbon Market Integrity Initiative. These include criteria for setting aggressive targets for scope 1, 2, and 3, and how and when to use offsets to support overall emissions reductions.

Does this mean that we will never see another case of greenwashing or a bad offset project? No, of course not, but they will be easier to spot and expose. Meanwhile, the voluntary carbon market can get on with the job of financing activities that are proven to be making a difference, while supporting corporates climate targets.

The silver bullet rhetoric

Arguments against offsetting, like this one by Oliver, almost always use the rhetoric that offsets are being used at the expense of any other action to mitigate GHG emissions. Not only is this wrong, but it also pushes the false notion that there is a single, perfect, silver-bullet solution to the problem. Alas, there is not.

Tackling the climate crisis will be a complicated, expensive, messy, error-prone journey. It is going to take the continued and mounting pressure from a concerned public. It needs governments to incentivise, cajole, and threaten society to lower emissions. It requires investor pressure, genuine and transparent business commitments, and inventive new technologies. And it needs experts in a huge number of different fields pursuing any and all viable solutions.

It also needs forensic investigative journalists to expose where things are failing, but who also have the integrity and honesty to treat with facts and not push uninformed biases.

When used as part of a broad, science-based strategy, high-quality offsets are an important and proven climate mitigation tool. They are also a crucial means of financing activities that are helping us tackling a whole range of challenges beyond the climate crisis, especially when it comes to protecting natural biodiverse environments like tropical forests and wetlands.