We must be realistic about carbon offsets in Australia – they will not stop climate change | Richard Denniss


Emissions compensations are to climate action what ivermectin is to medical treatment. Both have their own little uses in the right circumstances, but neither are helpful when trying to solve a global problem.

Just as ivermectin is a good way to treat scabies and a bad way to prevent Covid, “carbon offsets” can play a small role in preventing dangerous climate change.

But make no mistake, not cutting down a few trees will not protect us from the emissions associated with opening huge new gas wells and coal mines.

Australia is the world’s third largest exporter of fossil fuels, behind Saudi Arabia and Russia. We are the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas and the second largest exporter of coal.

And we are not moving away from fossil fuels, we are moving towards them, with plans to open huge new gas basins and dozens of new coal mines.

Encouraging people to cut fewer trees is a good idea, but it does not replace actual emission reductions. Unless, of course, if you’re Scott Morrison.

The coalition government is stuck on the horns of a dilemma of its own making. Tony Abbott has made protecting the fossil fuel industry a “core value” of the Coalition, and this has helped win over some Labor voters in the Australian region.

But the love of gas and coal is starting to cost them a lot of votes in the green Liberal seats they have always taken for granted. They don’t want to lose their regional vote to One Nation or Clive Palmer, but they also don’t want to lose their downtown vote to the Independents or the Greens.

Fortunately for the Coalition, but not for the climate, Morrison is the master of promising everyone everything. And luckily for Morrison, the carbon offsets give him the opportunity to walk on both sides of a very wide street.

Put simply, carbon offsets mean it can both promise “net zero” emissions to city voters and new subsidies to help expand fossil fuel exports to regions.

Just as an individual’s home office expenses can be “offset” by their salary to determine their “net income” for tax purposes, countries and businesses can use “avoided” emissions to offset their actual emissions from it. of fossil fuel combustion to determine their “net emissions”. Avoided emissions are those that were expected to occur but, thanks to government policy, did not occur.

Those who are serious about climate change try to cut their actual emissions as fast as they can and buy carbon offsets to make up the rest. But in Morrison’s Australia, where actual emissions from burning fossil fuels are rising and not falling, the plan appears to be to keep polluting and rely on offsets to meet our emission reduction targets.

“In Scott Morrison’s Australia (…) the plan is to keep polluting and rely entirely on offsets to meet our emission reduction targets.” Photograph: Lukas Coch / AP

It is not difficult to generate a lot of compensation. The Australian Tax Office requires receipts to prove that you actually spent money on your home office. But the government’s clean energy regulator will be happy with a promise that you are really going to generate a huge amount of emissions, and then when you just produce a very large amount instead, that gives you ‘offset credits’. . It’s like promising that you’re going to smash a lot of windows and then get praise for smashing just a few.

Take, for example, “avoided deforestation”. Recent research by the Australia Institute and the Australian Conservation Foundation claims millions of tons of avoided deforestation offsets were generated in New South Wales because the regulator assumed landowners would clear huge amounts of land. of land they were not likely to clear. Nothing was really “avoided” and therefore no emissions were “reduced”. But that doesn’t stop the government from claiming they did.

The last compensation plan concerns carbon capture and storage. When oil and methane (which the industry prefers you to call “natural gas”) are taken out of the ground, a lot of methane and CO2 is released. Sometimes the methane is captured and burned, but a lot of the methane and all of the CO2 usually escapes.

But now Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor is offering to pay the oil and gas industry for capturing some of the C02 that escapes when it extracts its fossil fuels that once burned, will actually cause more climate change.

This means that if we grow the oil and gas industry, we can increase the number of these “offsets” produced, thus allowing the government to simultaneously support the fossil fuel industry while assuring voters that it is doing something against it. climate change. It’s a very Morrison solution to a very real problem.

Unfortunately, as politicians promoting ivermectin as a solution to Covid are now discovering, relying on bogus solutions to very real problems can be even more dangerous than denying that these problems exist in the first place.

Richard Denniss is the chief economist of the independent Australia Institute think tank

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