Euroviews. Carbon offsets don't work. It's time for the EU to change its approach

An aircraft as it takes off at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle Airport, north of Paris, August 2018
An aircraft as it takes off at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle Airport, north of Paris, August 2018 Copyright AFP/Euronews
By Souparna Lahiri, Senior policy advisor, and Ismail Wolff, Environmental consultant
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

It's time for the EU to lay off the carbon offsets

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The European Union’s strategy to turn Europe into the first climate-neutral continent by 2050 is doomed to failure.

Yet, that can be prevented if it rejects the greenwashing of carbon offsetting programmes and shifts policy and finance flows towards genuine climate solutions focused on reducing emissions in line with the science.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), charged with advancing scientific knowledge about anthropogenic climate change, is due to release its sixth synthesis report on 20 March, which is expected to indicate there is no further room for offsets. 

It shows that by continuing to channel policy focus and financial flows towards mitigation efforts such as carbon offsets and other false solutions — and away from adaptation and the real solutions — we are delaying the immediate emission reduction target by 2030, and we will offshoot 1.5.

Brussels' directive is poised to do more harm than good

The EU is due to publish its Green Claims Directive Proposal next week before it goes to the European Parliament and the European Council as part of the standard legislative process, with it expected to be passed into law before the end of 2024. 

The directive is part of the broader 2020 Circular Economy action plan under the EU Green Deal aimed at bringing in EU-wide standards to prevent companies from making false and misleading environmental claims about their products and services. 

It's also meant to help consumers make informed choices and ensure a level playing field for businesses when marketing their greenness.

The proposed directive includes independent oversight mechanisms to ensure all “green claims” are substantiated and requires member states to ensure enforcement of the new guidelines through new powers for the competent authorities and to establish complaint procedures.

Hundreds of organisations have spoken out against this initiative, arguing that over-reliance on removals to offset ongoing emissions risks no net reductions in emissions.
Brian Inganga/www.photoshots.co.ke
A member of Mikoko Pamoja, Swahili for 'mangroves together', plants a mangrove tree at Gazi Bay, in Kwale county, Kenya, June 2022Brian Inganga/www.photoshots.co.ke

Simultaneously and as part of the broader Green Deal, the European Commission is also considering a Carbon Removals Certification Framework (CRCF) proposal to regulate offset schemes, which would form part of the assessment of any green claims. 

Hundreds of organisations have spoken out against this initiative, arguing that over-reliance on removals to offset ongoing emissions risks no net reductions in emissions. 

In fact, it increases the chances of overshooting temperature goals and chances of crossing tipping points and irreversible environmental impacts.

Damage is not undone by doing what is right somewhere else

Simply put, carbon offsets won’t save us. They have been proven a failure and are a barrier to real climate solutions. 

It is difficult to see how they would pass a genuine assessment of any claims to the contrary. 

Carbon certification companies such as Plan Vivo and Verra cannot be considered independent authorities of the validity of these schemes. 

Carbon offsetting is founded on misplaced assumptions of equivalence — that it is possible to trade off destructive practices in one place with positive actions in another.
Brian Inganga/www.photoshots.co.ke
A member of Mikoko Pamoja, Swahili for 'mangroves together', plants a mangrove tree at Gazi Bay, in Kwale county, Kenya, June 2022Brian Inganga/www.photoshots.co.ke

Multiple investigations and research projects have shown that the vast majority of carbon offset schemes, most of which focus on the planting or conserving of trees to balance out environmentally destructive business practices, simply do not work. 

But the voluntary offsets market is a multi-billion euro industry that Verra, Plan Vivo and others will do anything to protect, and they’re now looking into monetising biodiversity.

Carbon offsetting is founded on misplaced assumptions of equivalence — that it is possible to trade off destructive practices in one place with positive actions in another. 

But that doesn’t equate to the natural world, where all ecosystems and habitats are unique and are not interchangeable.

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Carbon offsetting entrenches inequalities

Carbon trading and offsets have also proven to be ineffective ways of reducing emissions and halting the production of fossil fuels. 

It means emissions are still being generated — often by companies in the Global North — not reduced, and offset somewhere else — often in the Global South — allowing companies to continue their unsustainable practices. 

These projects are also often responsible for human rights abuses, environmental harms and land conflicts and have gender-differentiated impacts.
Brian Inganga/www.photoshots.co.ke
A member of Mikoko Pamoja, Swahili for 'mangroves together', plants a mangrove tree at Gazi Bay, in Kwale county, Kenya, June 2022Brian Inganga/www.photoshots.co.ke

These projects are also often responsible for human rights abuses, environmental harms and land conflicts and have gender-differentiated impacts. 

They inherently favour those with economic power and tend to further entrench inequalities faced by marginalised groups, including women in all their diversity and Indigenous Peoples.

Research shows that whenever forests become more commercially attractive, for example, through forest carbon offsets markets and plantations, there has been a tendency for forest tenure and access rights — in the rare cases where tenure rights are present — to shift from women to men.

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Brussels should listen to reason backed by evidence

Beyond the fact that carbon offsetting is not the answer to climate change, these other important questions on human rights, justice, equity, and local economic, health, and social impacts of these projects require scrutiny. 

As such, they should be incorporated into the EU Green Claims Directive and other EU policies on climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Europe has a historical responsibility to support a just transition for the Global South and to rapidly bring emissions down to Real Zero. 

It’s time the EU listens to the science, feminist, and climate justice movements along with frontline communities. 

Europe must turn its back on false solutions and focus on the real work of halting emissions and conserving and restoring forests and other essential ecosystems.

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Souparna Lahiri is Senior Climate and Biodiversity Policy Advisor for the Global Forest Coalition. Ismail Wolff is an independent human rights and environmental consultant.

At Euronews, we believe all views matter. Contact us at view@euronews.com to send pitches or submissions and be part of the conversation.

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