As the pressure for an international deal grows in Copenhagen, one of the corner-stones of any solution will be carbon offsetting, where rich, polluting countries supposedly offset their rising emissions by investing in  “clean” projects in developing countries.

Off-setting will be high on the agenda at the next round of climate talks in Bonn this week, where reforms are being discussed to expand the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) scheme, which is the main offsetting vehicle.

However, for a while now, there have been voices arguing that off-setting is not the panacea that the polluters are arguing it is.

And now a new report is arguing that off-setting will do nothing to prevent climate change and is actually increasing rather than reducing carbon emissions.  The report by Friends of the Earth, called Dangerous Distraction, argues “In practice offsetting is having a disastrous impact on the prospects for averting catastrophic climate change. It is vital that the inherent and systemic flaws in the approach are recognised ahead of negotiations.”

The report collates many of the criticisms levelled at the emerging offsetting industry in recent years and comes up with five serious criticisms:
1.    counts action in developing countries as part of the cuts promised in developed countries, although the science is clear that action is needed in both developed and developing countries.
2.    cannot guarantee the same cuts as would have happened without offsetting. The US Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) 2008 review of offsets said “it is impossible to know with certainty whether any given project is additional”. Without this guarantee the net effect is that greenhouse  gas emissions are increasing – because the CDM credit allows the developed country to continue
3.    is causing major delays to urgently needed economic transformations in developed countries.
4.    does not ensure positive sustainable development in, or appropriate financial transfers to, developing countries.
5.    is profoundly unjust, fundamentally flawed and cannot be reformed.

The report’s conclusions are that offsets are so flawed that they are delivering far lower greenhouse gas cuts than the science says is needed to avert catastrophic climate change. The report says that developed countries must reduce their own emissions by at least 40 per cent by 2020 and that they must reject all forms of offsetting.

“Western governments are cheating us all by plotting to expand carbon offsetting at the UN climate talks – which means avoiding real action through dodgy accounting instead of taking bold action to tackle the climate crisis,” argues Andy Atkins, executive director at Friends of the Earth.

He adds: “Carbon offsetting is doing nothing to combat climate change, is putting the lives and livelihoods of millions of people at risk and is entrenching inequality between rich and developing countries’ levels of emissions.”


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