John Oliver’s main segment on Sunday’s Last Week Tonight concerned Earth, AKA the “Oscar Isaac of planets, in that it seems to be getting alarmingly hotter every year”, and specifically corporate promises to protect it from climate change via carbon neutrality. Such proposals, or claims to be “net zero”, suppose that businesses operate in a way that doesn’t increase the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.
But there’s an asterisk in the form of so-called carbon offsets, or plans which supposedly balance out emissions by reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by, for example, planting trees or building wind turbines.
Carbon offsets are a popular route for reaching “net zero” – Oliver cited one study which found that two-thirds of companies in heavily polluting industries relied on offsets instead of emissions reductions to reach carbon neutrality. And if the idea that you can invest money and make your carbon footprint disappear sounds too good to be true, “that’s because it is”, he said.
“Study after study has indicated that most offsets available on the market don’t reliably reduce emissions, and yet offsets are now the backbone of the environmental policies of many of the biggest polluters on the planet.”
The idea of a carbon offset is that, in theory, a company emitting fossil fuels can build mechanisms to absorb the same amount of emissions in the future that you release now. “Offsets allow businesses that can’t immediately reduce their emissions to balance things out by buying emissions reductions somewhere else,” Oliver explained. But “on some level, you probably know that carbon offsets are bullshit, both because you’re a reasonably intelligent person and because you know exactly what show you are watching right now. I don’t open my beak to squawk out good news.”
“But exactly how offsets are bullshit is really interesting,” he continued, “because it’s easy to say that you are reducing carbon emissions but it is much harder to prove it. And the truth is, there aren’t many checks and balances in place to prevent abuse.”
Oliver turned to the qualifying concept of additionality – the idea that an offset should provide an extra reduction of carbon that wouldn’t have happened any other way, like planting a tree that wouldn’t otherwise have been planted. A lot of cases for additionality are what Oliver called “shaky at best”, such as JP Morgan’s claim that it reached carbon neutrality in 2020. Doing so included buying $1m worth of offsets claiming to protect an area in Pennsylvania called Hawk Mountain preserve that wasn’t actually under threat of deforestation. “That probably should’ve been obvious from the fact that it was a preserve and not called the Hawk Mountain Chop Zone and Tree Murder Playground,” Oliver explained.
Experts have warned that the system used to certify carbon offsets to major airlines – you can now spend $2 at the airport in Austin, Texas, to “offset” 1,000 miles of air travel – is not “fit for use”.
“The problem with carbon offsets is everyone wants to believe in them,” said Oliver. “Buyers want a cheap way to make a big claim, and sellers want money for doing as little as possible. And ideally, there’d be an entity in the middle charged with keeping both sides honest.” Those entities are called carbon offset registries, which are supposed to be neutral third parties who sign off on the efficacy of potential offsets.
“But those registries aren’t really accountable to anyone,” Oliver said. “Technically, you or I could start a carbon registry. And given that they are paid by the companies selling the offsets, it will not surprise you to learn that many experts say their standards are far too low.”
“Basically, getting a sign-off from a carbon registry is like winning a Kids Choice Award,” he added. “It doesn’t really mean much, but it will help you temporarily look a little bit cleaner.”
It’s theoretically possible to truly offset carbon emissions – say, if a wind turbine farm that had no chance of construction replaces a fossil fuel plant. “But real world examples of that are incredibly hard to find,” said Oliver, and moreover “when you buy an offset so you can pollute more and that offset is bullshit, you’re now actively making things worse.
“It seems at best the benefits of carbon offsets are wildly overstated, while the harm that they can do is very real,” he added. “And while there are ongoing efforts to at least improve the standards of registries, the truth is, the offsets aren’t the answer here. Fundamentally, we cannot offset our way out of climate change.”
On a practical level, there literally isn’t enough space to plant the trees for companies to meet their net-zero pitches. One estimate found that there’s only 500m hectares of land left to be dedicated to new forests for carbon capture; Shell alone has proposed planting a tenth of that amount. “The bottom line is: we have an offset system that places profits over science, and the rules regulating it are just far too lax,” Oliver concluded. To prove the point, as one might predict, Oliver established his own carbon registry, Oliver’s Offsets, an organization that’s “making big claims while doing very little, which honestly is entirely reflective of the system that we currently have”.