We need to get real about carbon offsets in Australia – they won’t stop climate change | Richard Denniss

Saving a few trees is no substitute for real emissions reductions, except if you’re Scott Morrison

Emissions offsets are to climate action what ivermectin is to medical treatment. Both have their own small uses under the right circumstances, but neither is useful when you are trying to solve a global problem.

Just as ivermectin is a good way to treat scabies and a bad way to prevent Covid, “carbon offsets” can play a small role in avoiding dangerous climate change.

But make no mistake – not chopping down a few trees won’t protect us from the emissions that come with opening enormous new gas wells and coalmines.

Australia is the third largest exporter of fossil fuels in the world, coming in behind Saudi Arabia and Russia. We are the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas and the second largest exporter of coal.

And we aren’t transitioning away from fossil fuels, we are transitioning towards them, with plans to open enormous new gas basins and dozens of new coalmines.

Encouraging people to chop down fewer trees is a good idea, but it’s no substitute for actual emissions reductions. Except, of course, if you are Scott Morrison.

The Coalition government is stuck on the horns of a dilemma of its own making. Tony Abbott made protecting the fossil fuel industry a “core value” of the Coalition, and it has helped win over some Labor voters in regional Australia.

But the love of gas and coal is starting to cost them a lot of votes in the leafy Liberal seats that they have always taken for granted. They don’t want to lose their regional vote to One Nation or Clive Palmer but they also don’t want to lose their inner-city vote to independents or the Greens.

Luckily for the Coalition, but not the climate, Morrison is the master of promising everything to everyone. And luckily for Morrison, carbon offsets give him an opportunity to walk both sides of a very wide street.

Put simply, carbon offsets mean he can both promise “net zero” emissions to city voters, and new subsidies to help expand fossil fuel exports out in the regions.

Just as an individual’s home office expenses can be “offset” against their salary to determine their “net income” for tax purposes, countries and companies can use “avoided” emissions to offset their actual emissions from burning fossil fuels to determine their “net emissions”. Avoided emissions are those emissions that were expected to happen but, thanks to government policy, did not eventuate.

Those serious about climate change try to reduce their actual emissions as fast as they can, and buy carbon offsets to make up the remainder. But in Morrison’s Australia, where actual emissions from burning fossil fuels are rising not falling, the plan seems to be to keep polluting and rely on offsets to meet our emission reduction targets.

Scott Morrison
‘In Scott Morrison’s Australia ... the plan is to keep polluting and rely entirely on offsets to meet our emission reduction targets.’ Photograph: Lukas Coch/AP

It’s not hard to generate lots of offsets. The Australian Tax Office requires receipts to prove you actually spent money on your home office. But the government’s Clean Energy Regulator will settle for a promise that you really were going to generate a humongous amount of emissions and then when you merely produce a very large amount instead it gives you “offset credits”. It’s like promising you were going to smash a lot of windows and then getting praise for only breaking a few.

Take “avoided deforestation” for example. Recent research by the Australia Institute and the Australian Conservation Foundation argues that millions of tonnes of avoided deforestation offsets have been generated in New South Wales because the regulator assumed landholders were going to clear enormous amounts of land that they weren’t actually likely to clear. Nothing has really been “avoided” and therefore no emissions were “reduced”. But that isn’t stopping the government claiming they have.

The latest offsets plan involves carbon capture and storage. When oil and methane (which the industry prefers you to call “natural gas”) are extracted from the ground, lots of methane and C02 leaks out. Sometimes the methane is captured and burned, but much of the methane and all of the CO2 usually escapes.

But now the energy and emissions reduction minister Angus Taylor is proposing to pay the oil and gas industry for capturing some of the C02 that leaks out when they are extracting their fossil fuels which, when burned, will actually cause more climate change.

What this means is that if we expand the oil and gas industry we can increase the number of these “offsets” produced, making it then possible for the government to simultaneously support the fossil fuel industry while assuring voters it’s doing something about climate change. It’s a very Morrison solution to a very real problem.

Unfortunately, as the politicians promoting ivermectin as a solution to Covid are now finding out, relying on fake solutions to very real problems can be even more dangerous than denying those problems exist in the first place.

• Richard Denniss is the chief economist at the independent thinktank the Australia Institute

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Richard Denniss

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