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03.07.2023 | יד תמוז התשפג

Can Carbon Offsetting Truly Compensate for Emissions?

BIU’s Philosophy Dept. explores the empirical and moral aspects of carbon offsetting


In the face of climate change, we frantically seek new ways for mitigating our impact on the environment. Carbon offsetting has emerged as a popular solution, allowing people to continue their current lifestyle while compensating for their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. An article by Dr. Dan Baras, a Senior Lecturer at Bar-Ilan University’s Department of Philosophy, explores relevant questions about carbon offsetting: Is emitting and then offsetting carbon equivalent to not emitting at all? Is the empirical result all that matters?

The argument for carbon offsetting is based on two premises: The empirical premise suggests that when emissions are offset, the net result is equivalent to not emitting at all. The normative premise states that, morally speaking, the net result is what matters. This leads to the concept of “Moral Equivalence”, meaning that emitting + offsetting is morally equivalent to not emitting. However, this concept requires further examination.

Carbon offsetting is performed by sequestration or by forestalling. Sequestration involves removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it elsewhere (planting trees, preserving forests, capturing CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it in reservoirs); while forestalling prevents the emission of carbon (through renewable energy projects).

Carbon offsetting often fails to empirically offset emissions, and its effectiveness is questionable. Additionally, indirect emissions caused by activities like flying (such as building and maintaining the aircraft, expanding and maintaining airports) are often overlooked and not fully offset.

Additionality and leakage pose further challenges to carbon offsetting: Additionality refers to situations where offsetting projects may not make a significant difference in emissions, as they might have happened anyway. Leakage occurs when offsetting efforts merely shift emissions from one location to another.

Typically, any reduction caused by offsetting schemes occurs at a later time than that of the emissions. The time gap between emissions and the implementation of offsetting projects leads to more GHG in the atmosphere, accelerating climate change. This acceleration may limit the time available for adaptation and increase the risk of catastrophic consequences.

While some believe that the net result is the only consideration, there are other relevant factors. Not emitting in the first place holds several advantages, including avoiding direct and indirect emissions, eliminating the need for offsetting, and reducing the rate of climate change.

Consequentialism holds that the consequences of our actions determine their moral value. In the context of carbon offsetting, consequentialism suggests that if two courses of action lead to the same consequences, they are morally equivalent.

Climate consequentialism claims the cumulative effect of emissions from many individuals can cause severe harm, so the focus is on reducing overall greenhouse gas (GHG) levels rather than personal carbon footprints. Therefore, climate consequentialism does not support the idea of carbon offsetting, which implies a connection between an agent and his own emissions.

A non-consequentialist perspective argues that if the goal is to maximize good and make the world a better place, it would be more efficient to invest in funding tuberculosis treatments for citizens of poor countries rather than in offsetting emissions.

The article by Dr. Baras challenges the concept of moral equivalence between emitting and offsetting, on both empirical and moral grounds. Therefore, significant efforts should be made to reduce emissions without solely relying on offsets. The goal should be to adjust existing norms and prioritize emission reduction, rather than relying solely on offsetting as a solution.