Bloomberg Green on The Nature Conservancy and “Meaningless Carbon Offsets”

We’ve been talking about carbon tax credits for forest land as part of the Forest-Climate Working Group policy platform. This story is about offsets and talks about some of the difficulties determining what is really changed due to the payments. It seems to me like a government run program could have the same difficulties..

Another thing of interest about this story is that it is supposed to be “news” but comes across as not particularly unbiased. (FWIW, I’ve never been a fan of offsets). It reads more like an op-ed.
“The blistering urgency of the planet’s climate crisis is almost impossible to overstate.”
“But a review of hundreds of pages of documents underpinning those projects and interviews with a half-dozen participating landowners indicate that the Conservancy is often preserving forested lands that don’t need defending.” A half-dozen? Often? What is the total number of projects?

“The offset controversy has not deterred the Conservancy, which for years ruffled the feathers of other environmental groups for its businesslike approach and close ties to corporate partners.”

“With the window to address climate change slamming shut, many observers say the scarce resources to tackle this problem should be funneled into projects that actually result in concrete emissions reductions.”

There are also good things in the story about TNC:

The approach has produced some enormous victories. In 1998 the Nature Conservancy spent $35 million to buy pristine forests surrounding much of the 130-mile upper St. John River in Maine. A decade later it acquired 320,000 acres of forested land in Montana from a timber company before developers could get their hands on it. Each year, the Conservancy spends around $150 million purchasing land or paying for easements that shield it.

The story gives a history of offsets and talks about some of the difficulties figuring out landowners’ intentions in the short and long term. It seems so simple- paying to keep trees in the ground. You can measure the trees. Are they there or not? More difficult are questions about whether they would have been cut without the carbon payments. On the other hand, if we think about payments for ecosystem services, would we care whether the landowner intended to provide deer habitat without the payment? Or would we just say, “if you’re going to do it, we’ll pay you.” To reimburse people with original wildlife intentions, and to reward those who change. It seems fairer and more straightforward than having to prove you were not otherwise going to manage for wildlife habitat.

So perhaps the problem is with the idea of the “offset” itself- having to change behavior before it is counted, and perhaps the marketing thereof. And I don’t know whose idea that was. What if instead Disney said “we are paying landowners for carbon services” it’s still a good thing- but just not comparing tons of carbon that the company uses.

But if you get away from the ton for ton equivalence, the you might as well give up on specific solutions and do whatever floats your corporate boat. If the window is indeed “slamming shut” then we need transformative technological solutions, and if I were those corporations, the bucks should go to technology development, say, for CCS. Or perhaps for Delta, for alternative jet fuels. But I suspect their jet fuel footprint has already decreased greatly this year due to Covid.

9 thoughts on “Bloomberg Green on The Nature Conservancy and “Meaningless Carbon Offsets””

  1. This seems like an op-ed rather than a straight-up piece of journalism. The vast majority of the offset credits in question are from the California cap-and-trade regulatory system If Bloomberg wanted to look into “fake” carbon credits, it ought to have started there.

  2. There are some similarities to conservation easements (TNC’s original claim to fame), where a landowner receives a tax deduction for the loss in property value that results from permanently eliminating some future uses of the land. It doesn’t matter whether the land would ever have been used for such purposes (although an appraisal must identify the “highest and best use”). A key difference is that offsets can be for temporary management changes (and are valued accordingly).

    I’m not sure what you are seeing as the “problem.” If it is “many observers say the scarce resources to tackle this problem should be funneled into projects that actually result in concrete emissions reductions,” I think we’re in an “all of the above” situation with the climate. Offsets are required for a regulatory system (government or voluntary), as an alternative to a carbon tax. A good thing about periodic offset payments is that they don’t have to be a long-term commitment, and if technology reveals a more effective/efficient use of resources (including better calibration of offset benefits), they could be redirected.

  3. This is probably the best summary I’ve ever read of the whole carbon offset issue:

    “So perhaps the problem is with the idea of the “offset” itself- having to change behavior before it is counted, and perhaps the marketing thereof. And I don’t know whose idea that was. What if instead Disney said “we are paying landowners for carbon services” it’s still a good thing- but just not comparing tons of carbon that the company uses.”

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Wikipedia has a section on offsets.. the regulatory ones seem to be a function of cap’n’trade (which some have called me a “denier” for not supporting). I guess for my idea (a voluntary carbon price so that each company would spend that much money, instead of trying to offset tons of carbon with all the paperwork and checking that entails) to work, it would have to be a voluntary offset.

      If you think reducing carbon is fundamentally an engineering problem, I think it’s important to ask “why are we spending money on all these regulatory and certification schemes when we could put it into more technological innovation?”

      There are many bucks devoted to climate change and I can see why everyone wants to get their hand in the till, but still, it seems to me that it should be open to discussion what are the best government investments in mitigation. Adaptation, well, the usual folks will be handling that, water managers, wildlife folks and so on.

      Also, Gary, I clicked on the link you provided and it said it was written by “41 scientists” but that link didn’t work. I actually think their description of forests was oversimplified. It would be interesting to have that discussion with them, whoever they are.

      • I concur that the description of forests is over simplified, but the simple aspects of climate change, that soils and forests cannot compensate for the emissions from burning fossil fuels is the message that needs to be heard.

        Note that there is a body of academic material that explores how carbon offsetting actually militates against technological innovation, because it gives the polluter and easy out.

        The truth that many environmentalists do not want to admit is that the focus on pollution trading has resulted in a high level of climate science illiteracy. Groups like The Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense Fund, the Pacific Forest Trust and others who serve the nations landed aristocracy and extractive industries have done us all a great disfavor by promoting the dubious science of forest-based carbon offsetting. It is a misrepresentation of how humans are disturbing global carbon cycles, and it ignores the climate science fundamental that the emissions from burning fossil fuels are cumulative.

        The climate problem is the emissions from yesterday, plus the emissions from today, plus the emissions from tomorrow. We have a limited carbon budget, we are burning through it, and groups like The Nature Conservancy need to be held accountable for helping push us over the climate change cliff by wasting precious time with their flagrant marketing of false solutions that ignore the scientific fundamentals of climate change itself.

        • Let me read this back to you, Gary: Natural climate solutions should be used to mitigate carbon from yesterday and today that can’t be prevented rather than carbon from tomorrow that could have been prevented. It’s an alternative to (or in addition to) carbon-capture technology rather than an alternative to prevention. Offsets would violate these principles.

          Of course the problem is that for emissions that will happen tomorrow that can’t/won’t be prevented, is it better to at least break even on carbon than to lose more ground? (Which of course assumes that forests will be protected that wouldn’t be otherwise.) So maybe offsets are useful until we can regulate emissions away, as long as this doesn’t have the “crutch effect” of delaying such regulation.

  4. I think (hope) everyone would agree that carbon offsets that actually offset emissions (that would otherwise happen), are good. For example, if we can stop the clearing of the amazon rainforest, that would be good. Emissions from land use change are real and are a significant component of human emissions.

    I think the problem comes with what Sharon pointed out, that some carbon “offsets” are paying landowners for what they would be doing anyway. So in a sense this is “wasted” money that could be used to otherwise solve the climate crisis. There is no simple way to ensure that offsets are spent appropriately, but I don’t think that means they are never good. Some problems (like deforestation) are complicated and take complicated solutions.

  5. The prerequisite for offsets is that the buyer does everything possible to reduce their emissions, then funds a project that actually reduces additional emissions.


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