Carbon Neutral?

Carbon Neutrality, How to Remain Neutral on Climate Change

Alexandria Williams April 23, 2021

Similar to the bombardment of supermarkets with a slew of organic labels, ‘carbon neutral’ peppers business websites, product labels, and corporate advertisements. While the implication of offsetting carbon emission is in the name, is neutrality a good step in addressing climate change? Focusing on a common carbon offset method, reforestation, this article critiques carbon neutrality for allowing business as usual and upholding the very systems perpetuating climate change.

The 2015 Paris Climate Accord, in line with keeping temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius, established a 50% reduction in emissions by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2050. Signed on by 196 global parties, the transition process has begun. A wide range of business and corporate actors have pledged a range of promises from carbon neutral, zero carbon, and carbon negative.

Unlike the USDA’s organic label distinction, these three climate friendly production labels are entirely distinct. Carbon neutral refers to a balancing act as a party removes an amount of carbon dioxide equal to that of which they emit into the atmosphere. Zero carbon refers to buildings and transportation and the use of renewable energies. Carbon negative tips the scale, with more carbon dioxide being removed than emitted.

Carbon offsets are the balancing act played by corporations, as they fund sustainable programs to offset their own emissions. Sarah Kaplan, writing for the Washington Post explains, “the aim is that the climate benefits of these projects will zero out the emissions from the purchaser”. A popular example is the planting of trees and reforestation.

One Tree Planted’s carbon offset program advertises to individuals, rather than businesses, to offset their carbon footprint. An “average joe” allots offsetting 20 tonnes for $300, the “purchase will increase total carbon stores via protection of a mature forest, conservation-based forest management, and regular audits to measure carbon.”

While simple and effective, adding trees to ‘your cart’ brushes close to commodification, an emerging idea known as ‘disaster capitalism’. Alexis Madrigal explains, “climate adaptation could look like a million individual products, each precisely targeted on social media to the intersection of a consumer culture and a catastrophe.”

Regardless of trees planted, in the end, we are still emitting carbon. Writing for Greenpeace, Alia Al Ghussain mentions we, “need to stop carbon emissions from getting into the atmosphere in the first place.” Climate change demands drastic reversals of current systems exploiting the planet, carbon neutrality is a reserved approach.

Carbon offsets and the goals of carbon neutrality maintain the capitalist functions of continual growth and profit maximization without making substantial changes. Given there are no explicit restrictions on limiting emissions, Terry Nguyen writing for Vox states, “[a]re these businesses only offsetting their emissions, or are they setting targets to holistically reduce their carbon use overall?”. Alia Al Ghussain comments on this relationship: “they’re a distraction from the real solutions to climate change”.


Total U.S. GHG Emissions by Economic Sector 2019 Image: EPA

An example of this dynamic, the dangers of continued oil production. According to the EPA 29% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation. The majority of emissions from fuel are burned by cars, trucks, and planes. And yet, the oil giants, BP, Chevron, and ExxonMobil have all released pledges committed to reducing emissions without limiting production. Unsurprisingly, they are misleading, with nobody legitimately planning a transition away from fossil fuels.


Climate Pledges by Company Image: Paul Horn/Nicholas Kusnetz

Additionally, the reductions target producing, refining, and processing oil and gas, when a majority of emissions come from fueling transportation. Thus, “none of the companies has committed to cut its oil and gas output over the next decade, the simplest and most reliable way” to cut emissions.

Carbon offsets allow companies to not only avoid taking meaningful action, but makes fossil fuels “more palatable” to consumers. Carbon neutrality does not get to the crux of the issue, offering passes the planet and its people cannot afford to give. Especially when their projects for carbon offsets are not necessarily quick fixes to offsetting their persistent emissions. The delayed effects of reforestation are an example.

Reforestation projects in the Global South have picked up traction, taking advantage of the natural tendency of trees to act as carbon sinks. According to a research study conducted by NASA, Earth’s ecosystem could support another 900 million hectares of forest which has the potential to reduce atmospheric carbon by 25%. However, trees take twenty years, sometimes a century to mature. When the clock to 2030 ticks each year, there is no time to delay with programs that take decades to mature.

“A newly-planted tree can take as many as 20 years to capture the amount of CO2 that a carbon-offset scheme promises. We would have to plant and protect a massive number of trees for decades to offset even a fraction of global emissions. Even then, there is always the risk that these efforts will be wiped out by droughts, wildfires, tree diseases and deforestation.” Alia Al Ghussain

While tropical forests uptake carbon faster, the advantages of one region are not the prize of the Global North. Newly termed climate colonialism references offsetting projects focused within the Global South as they displace communities. Some projects may be on indigenous lands or on land better used for community needs. Just as companies outsourced production and pollution to developing countries, they cannot outsource ‘solutions’.

On Earth Day, before the Leaders Summit on Climate, President Biden pledged to cut U.S. emissions by 50% by 2030. While a well needed approach, the question of how this will be achieved remains in the air. Considering his administration issued thirty-one new drilling permits in his first few days of office, it’s presumable that the approach will run along carbon offsets and carbon neutrality. The President stated this is, “a moment of extraordinary possibilities”, and he is correct. An extraordinary moment to uplift old systems of exploitation and destruction, rather than business as usual.

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