Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version
Pambazuka News Issues Brief

Carbon offsetting refers to the process reducing the net greenhouse gas ("carbon") emissions of a party, by reducing the greenhouse gas emissions—or increasing the carbon dioxide absorption—of another party. The intended goal of carbon offsets is to combat global warming. Increasing concern about global warming and the inability of certain countries to significantly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions has made the option of offsetting very attractive. As a result there is a burgeoning market in carbon offsets. Africa is particularly attractive for carbon offsets. Not only are the levels of greenhouse gas emissions relatively low, ecological and economic factors also favor the establishment of offset projects.

Planting of trees to absorb carbon has been the most common form of carbon offsetting, but by no means the only one. There are already several such projects funded either by countries or corporations to offset emissions.

Carbon offsetting has rapidly become the means by which a polluting world assuages its guilt and attempts to solve the problem of global warming. Proponents of carbon offsetting advance the argument that in a modern world where pollution is a given, it is easier to find ways to mitigate the damage than it is to reduce it. In other words, it is easier to do something to pay for the damage, rather than not to damage. Hence the proliferation of "carbon-neutral" products and companies that give consumers of their products a guilt-free buy, by promising, for example, to fund a stove-making project in Eritrea or the reforestation of the slopes of Uganda's Mount Elgon.

The question that begs is whether these projects promote sustainable development. In Africa, for instance, how does monoculture of trees funded through offsetting projects need balancing against the dire need for arable land for food production? It may be argued that with advancing desertification, any such initiative should be welcomed. Harsher critics of offsetting like Austin Williams, director of the Future Cities Project, have referred to the practice as 'Carbon colonialism', whereby wealthy nations continue to rapidly develop using technology and industry that pollutes while they consign the poorer ones to the position of mopping up the world's pollution through eco-friendly projects that hamper their ability to develop and the same rate.

Williams takes a dim view of carbon offsets, arguing that agencies involved in carbon offset schemes engage in low- or alternative-technology projects in the developing world, hence slowing the pace of development to benefit the same environment that the developed world is destroying. He states that the current system sanctifies the environment and 'keeps half the world in penury while the other half ponders their next purchasing decisions'. In his view, 'consumer choices and carbon offsets are designed to maintain the iniquitous status quo, and make you feel good about it'. (Read Austin Williams' article on 'Spike Online' – link below)

Carbon offsetting is being touted as an opportunity to generate much-needed revenue for poor countries. But is it a good thing? Aid to poor countries was touted as a good thing, and it probably saved millions of lives. However, today, it is debatable whether the people of Africa are better of for having received it, and if it did not in fact hamstring efforts at autonomous development.

Further Reading:
The New Internationalist
David Suzuki Foundation
Climate Change Action
Spiked Online
IndyMedia Climate