Rebuttle to Comedian, John Oliver
Updated: Jan 29
I write in response to John Oliver’s recent comedy piece about carbon offsetting. Mr Oliver made a general point that carbon offsetting alone cannot solve climate change. In other words, that companies must reduce their carbon impacts, not merely pay to keep polluting. Of course, the logic of his point is correct. However, his assumption that companies are no reducing misses the mark.
Today, companies are making major commitments to achieve Net Zero emissions through the reduction of CO2 produced (via avoidance), and by investing in voluntary offsetting through renewable energy initiatives and nature conservation projects (tropical forest protection, afforestation and more). In practice, companies are reducing their carbon footprints at scale. They then offset the remaining CO2 for which there is not presently an affordable technological solution. Therefore, Mr Oliver’s opening objection appears to be unfounded.
One perception issue amongst activists, which affects general perceptions, is that carbon credits are virtual tokens. In reality, the purchase of carbon offsets is a direct investment in projects that reduce CO2 emissions, such as renewable energy schemes, and projects that offer nature based solutions, such as tropical forest protections and afforestation at scale.
No entity is advocating that offsetting is the only solution: neither offsetting brokers, project developers, client companies, framework auditors, offsetting commodity exchanges nor the United Nations. All parties support reductions, wherever possible, alongside offsetting. All of Highland Carbon’s clients are fully committed to reducing their CO2 emissions. The only people making that point that offsetting occurs without reductions appear to be activists and satirists.
It is also true that no entity is supporting reducing CO2 emissions, alone, without offsetting. That is because we will continue to have a serious Climate Emergency as long as there remains a large volume of CO2 in the atmosphere.
The atmospheric carbon load is analogous to a full bathtub. Even if we turn off the tap, the bath will remain full until we pull the plug. In this case, the plug is represented in the main by nature-based carbon offsetting solutions: afforestation, peatland restoration, algae production, blue carbon (seaweed) and soil carbon. The growth of organic matter draws CO2 out of the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis, and locks the carbon into biomass (tree trunks, branches, roots and soil carbon). These initiatives themselves receive critical private sector finance, as endorsed by Project Drawdown, in the form of carbon offsetting. The United Nations and the IPCC both endorse and advocate for the ‘Drawdown’ of CO2 from the atmosphere by green initiatives that are financed by carbon offsetting. In short, without carbon offsetting, we will not solve the climate crisis and there will be no future for flora, fauna and humanity.
It is true that there remain some exceptional sectors, such as aviation, for which a sustainable solution does not yet exist. Electric aircraft and sustainable-sourced jet fuel are in development but are not yet available at scale. The alternative in this case would be to ban air travel, which even climate activists do not advocate. A more reasonable approach is to permit such companies and/or their passengers to at least offset those their CO2 impacts in order to reduce the overall CO2 balance in the atmosphere until sustainable technology is price feasible.
There are very well established, robust carbon offsetting frameworks in place that are well regulated, fully traceable and third-party audited. International voluntary offsetting standards include the Verified Carbon Standard, the Gold Standard, the America Carbon Registry and the BioCarbon Registry.
One of the fastest growing frameworks is the United Nations’ own Clean Development Mechanism (UN-CDM). That’s right, the UN not only endorses the other frameworks, but it has its own carbon offsetting framework! In our case, we sell across these international frameworks, and especially via the UN’s own standard, in addition to the UK frameworks: The Woodland Carbon Code and the Peatland Code. The UK frameworks are very robust and exceptionally well regulated.
I do acknowledge one point by John Oliver. It is true that in certain instances carbon offsetting can come with risks, just as buying real estate can come with risks. As a carbon broker, Highland Carbon advises companies against offsetting in countries where corruption is an issue and where there are low standards of governance. We also advise against offsetting in countries where there are human rights violations and questionable employment practices that would violate company antislavery commitments. That said, the vast majority of projects within the recognised frameworks represent safe investments with noteworthy, impacts. Transactions are logged on commodity exchanges and on the carbon registers, which are fully traceable.
Let’s go back to the argument made by John Oliver that carbon offsetting alone is not the solution. Let’s deconstruct that argument and apply a metaphor. To illustrate the point, I will make the false argument using his logic that seatbelts are a con and should be banned.
“Big Seatbelt alleges that it saves lives. However, I have found reports that traffic deaths also occur when seatbelts are used. It’s a big con! The real danger is fast drivers. In fact, fast drivers wear seatbelts so that they don't have to slow down. Therefore, we know that seatbelts are the cause of mass traffic deaths every year. Seatbelts are THE problem. They should be banned.”
In truth, safety engineering in cars saves lives: seat belts, crumple zones, airbags, etc. No one would suggest that people can drive as fast and as dangerously as they like, just because seatbelts exist. Just as nobody is advocating that the impetus to reduce CO2 by companies is obviated by the carbon offsetting market.
In time, the carbon offsetting market will no longer exist. That is, affordable technologies will develop to enable companies to reduce their vestigial carbon footprints, those remaining after historical reductions to date. At that point, our future will be fully sustainable.
We have seen to date that the cost of renewable energy has reduced enormously! Developments in renewable energy, such as wind-power and solar energy, were catalyzed by large-scale carbon offsetting finance. Such finance has enabled purchase of solar panels, wind turbines and hydro-electric turbines at scale. So doing, it helped to bring economies of scale and reduced price overall. Just as future breakthroughs in sustainable aviation will be supported by offsetting in due course. Carbon offsetting will set a course that supports vital inventions and discoveries.
I appreciate that Mr Oliver was creating a cartoon of the issue in order to achieve satire. The sad thing is that he has a vast audience and his narrative can undermine the likelihood that the planet will be sustainable. It undermines the United Nations' own commitments to achieve Net Zero and the hard fought agreements achieved during the various COP meetings.
We punish those business that are doing the right thing, being good corporate citizens, at our peril. They are doing exactly what the UN expects them to do. We castigate carbon offsetting at our peril. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water!