Chatting about trees and carbon offsets with climate journalist Ketan Joshi (@KetanJ0)
Date: Mar 22 2022, Twitter Spaces
Guest: Ketan Joshi, climate journalist
Outline of the chat:
What are carbon offsets?
Have you ever hugged a tree?
How did tree planting and offsets become the default eco-behavior?
What should we be doing instead?
(All discussion paraphrased unless it's in direct quotes)
Eric Holthaus: How'd you get your start working on climate?
Ketan Joshi: I was working in the wind farm industry in 2010 as an energy analyst, and then moved to the communications department. I quickly realized that there was an enormous disconnect between corporate net zero commitments and offsets and the renewable energy industry as the public sees it.
I left the corporate world to become an independent journalist and I've been obsessed with this question of the net zero narrative over the past two or three years.
EH: So, in your words, what exactly is a carbon offset?
KJ: "The cultural understanding of an 'offset' is an action or service that you can purchase that cancels out the harm you created. The common understanding of this is that if you emit something into the earth’s atmosphere, an offset is removing it, and therefore stopping the harm. In the actual real world, offsets are not removing the substance, but convincing someone else to not add it."
So the real question is, when you purchase a carbon offset, are you actually undoing the harm, or are you reducing the harm slightly from what it was going to be? The answer is almost always the latter.
In industry-speak, this kind of harm-reduction offset is called "avoided emissions." This is what happens when you pay for someone else to plant a new tree on your behalf. This is what happens when you pay for someone else not to cut down a tree that they were going to cut down. In neither case is an equivalent amount of emissions physically taken out of the atmosphere on the same timeframe (over a few hours or a few days) as when you put it up there. When you purchase a carbon offset, there's about a 90-95% chance that what they’re doing is avoided emissions.
"When you buy a carbon offset, the most basic physical reality of what has happened is that you’ve added a ton of carbon, and a person that was going to add a ton, didn’t. So the money you paid went to ensure that only your 1 ton made it to the atmosphere, not 2 tons. The planet still warms, but maybe at a slightly lower rate."
EH: That’s not a good thing.
KJ: Right, that's not a good thing.
"We have to get to a point to where we don’t add new gases to the atmosphere." The climate emergency will end not when we collectively reduce emissions, or when we stabilize emissions at a certain level. It will end when we have no new emissions. Zero.
Now, the headline of your article this week was maybe intentionally a little incindiary, but an over-reliance on planting trees as a carbon offset makes things worse because it distracts us from the real task of our generation, which is getting to zero emissions.
Carbon offset tree plantations eat up land, they mess up cultures, food systems, biodiversity because offsets are not meant to be used at this scale.
"Offsets are precious and scarce. They’re not the things you just bandy about for literally everything."
The other day, here in Australia, I saw an advertisement for Qantas, our national airline, where they’re doing an NFT for little pictures of planes — but they're buying carbon offsets for them to make them net zero. This kind of thing is reckless and silly. This company has no interest in the physical reality of what this means.
A lot of people, regular people, are buying carbon offsets with their hearts in the right place. A lot of people — including oil companies and airlines — are disconnected from the sheer seriousness of the grave consequences of doubling down on wasting this useful technology for frivolous things.
EH: What do you say when people ask you if they should buy carbon offsets?
I generally recommend people not to. I think it’s better to engage with your own lifestyle and look directly at the emissions in the face. We have limited ways of influencing the world — we can't take public transport if there's none available, for example. I can't take a train from my home in Norway to see my family in Australia.
Taking a plane to get here is something that feels gross to me. I feel shame and guilt. But I have to see my family at some point in my life. I'm keenly aware that not everyone in the world has access to aviation, so there's a privilege there. But I personally don’t want to buy offsets because I don’t want to feel like I’m giving myself a free pass.
EH: How about a palate cleanser. Have you ever hugged a tree? I mean actually, physically hugged a tree?
KJ: I've been back home here in Australia all summer, and I’m going really wild hugging and touching everything. The natural world in Australia is incredible. In Australia in particular, people's relationship to the natural world is something that is so precious.
EH: So I want to ask you a personal question. I've been struggling in my own life, and it sounds like you are a bit too, with figuring out what we should be doing in our own lives, in the middle of this emergency, to change things with the speed and scale and scope that this moment demands, and do that in line with climate justice. In your opinion, if we shouldn't offset our emissions, what should we do instead?
KJ: "You have to engage with local politics in your neighborhood. When you start doing it, you realize you have a bit more power than you assumed. The way we were told we were helpless was a lie."
"Personal carbon offsets are very much working against climate action. We are now in a position where we need people fighting. We need to change our local neighborhoods to demand low carbon lifestyles. We can't have something that offers false hope."
What I'd love to see is a major company, instead of buying offsets and greenwashing us, is to be up front and unambiguous and say: "We are not going to fully reduce our emissions right away, but we're going to cut them as much as we can. We added all our emissions up, and here they are, here's the numbers. On top of that, we’re going to fund Indigenous people to protect this piece of land."
People are nervous to talk about the moral exchange of what carbon offsets is enabling. We feel scared to engage with what deforestation actually means, the lives lost, the species gone forever. It’s hard to look directly at. The way we think about solutions can often be really tainted. If a particular solution is used for tenuous reasons, then the solution is tenuous.
As for tree planting, there are so many instances where it’s a really good thing. "You can use a good thing in a bad way, and you can use a good thing in a good way. You have to be able to hold two ideas in your head at the same time."
Fossil fuel companies know that we struggle to keep that nuance in our head. Crisis tends to bury structural change. But I'm optimistic that in a few years, it will all be revealed. The sadness and grief of this moment will turn around pretty soon.
We’ll see that coal power specifically will decline in Australia, the people fighting for that change will be so energized. That space will hopefully be filled by renewables. That’s a really really big thing.
Climate action has co-benefits: As emissions go down, you end up with cleaner air and cheaper transport. That’s the main story of our time. The climate emergency is escalating so fast that cleaner air is now an urgent priority. It isn’t just that we're idealistically fighting for a better world. It’s now a matter of crisis response.