Debate heats up over role of carbon offsets in Biden’s ‘net-zero’ goal
Environmentalists are debating how carbon offsets should fit into President Biden’s goal of putting the country on track to reach “net-zero” emissions by 2050.
The administration soon will offer its first clues on how it plans to achieve that goal with the release of an updated U.S. plan for meeting Paris agreement commitments. The report, known as the Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), will spell out the country’s new interim emissions targets.
Proponents of using carbon offsets argue that they’re necessary for reaching net-zero targets and that anything that ultimately removes carbon from the air is a good thing. Opponents counter that offsets essentially punt emissions reductions down the road, and they point to evidence showing the approach is not always effective.
The administration is slated to announce its new NDC ahead of a climate summit with world leaders on Earth Day. Biden is expected to set a goal that goes beyond former President Obama’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 percent before 2025 when compared to 2005 levels.
Environmentalists who support offsets say that they would like to see an NDC that’s focused on emissions reductions, but that the Biden administration could include offsets in addition.
“It shouldn’t be an either-or. We need to both find these emissions reductions where we can around the world and the U.S. needs to be much more ambitious about the internal emissions reductions,” said Nat Keohane, the Environmental Defense Fund’s senior vice president for climate.
The Environmental Defense Fund is calling for an NDC of at least 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.
If the U.S. were to commit to using offsets in addition to those reductions, Keohane said, “that would be even better for the atmosphere.”
Carbon offsets allow countries, companies and individuals to pay for an activity like planting trees that removes some quantity of the greenhouse gas from the air and receive a tradeable credit for the amount of greenhouse gases this removes.
Supporters argue that using offsets can be cheaper than reducing industrial emissions. An analysis by the Environmental Defense Fund found that global emissions trading could lower the cost of meeting Paris agreement pledges by between 59 and 79 percent.
Frances Seymour, a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute, said reductions and offsets should go hand in hand.
“In the past there was a sense that whether it was countries or companies could offset some of their emissions with cheaper emissions … that offsetting of some emissions through the use of offsets would allow the same level of reductions to be achieved at a lower cost or a higher level of reductions could be achieved at the same cost,” Seymour said.
But in light of recent indications of where the climate is headed, she said, “we need to be doing everything.”
Environmentalists say Biden’s commitment to net-zero implies at least some degree of offsetting, because unless the country has no emissions, the subtractions to reach zero will have to come from somewhere.
“When you talk about net-zero, a lot of people forget the net, and the net is really all about how you’ll ultimately compensate for emissions with removals of one type or another, and we think of offsets of really being that way of balance to the system,” said Dirk Forrister, president of the International Emissions Trading Association.
Some opponents of prioritizing offsets argue that shooting for net-zero emissions is the wrong goal, and that the U.S. should instead be aiming to reach near-zero emissions solely through emissions reductions.
“We are in a climate emergency, and we are dangerously close to tipping points such as triggering the complete meltdown of the great ice sheets of the world,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute. “It is not acceptable and it is not safe to say, ‘Well, what really matters is net-zero in 2050.’ ”
Siegel argued that the climate can still suffer if countries just assume they can offset their emissions down the line.
“Let’s just take the extreme example: We will continue along in years one through nine with 100 percent of the pollution we are emitting now and then in year 10 we will offset it all … And take the other extreme example: This year we cut our pollution to zero and we don’t offset it later. Those are two very different things in terms of the atmosphere,” she said.
Other criticisms of offsets include arguments that they aren’t as effective as they purport to be.
A 2019 ProPublica review looked at 20 years worth of offset projects and found a number of cases where they either didn’t deliver the reductions they were supposed to or that their impacts were eventually reversed.
Additionally, nongovernmental organizations have alleged that carbon offset programs have been linked to land grabs that harm people in developing countries.
“The Biden administration shouldn’t be using, promoting or relying on offsets because they’ve been proven not to work and to cause harm,” Siegel said.