Carbon offsets are always a second-best. Third-best, really, after carbon trading. But adjusting to climate change has potential for massive disruption if intermediate mechanisms aren't acknowledged.
Two items in New Scientist recently illustrate some of the perils of sub-optimal solutions. On 7th April comes the claim that 625 square kilometres of newly planted trees would be needed to offset a mere 50,000 people. Never mind issues auditing the veracity or continuity of such an exercise.
On 12th May it reported from the Financial Times that some of the market in carbon offsets is going to oil companies to pump carbon dioxide into oilfields – a process they would have done anyway, to extract more oil.
In the process of industrial transformation from high-carbon-emission energy to low-emission sources, we are going to see a wide range of sub-optimal industries flourish, all with their own barrow to push. The coal industry, for example, is trying to hang on by any means. Clean coal is the major oxymoron bandied about; another is Combined Heat and Power stations (CHP) – New Scientist again, 28th April.
The key issue here is that there is so much already massive investment in dirty energy, and those investors are going to vigorously defend it. Emerging energy industries – solar, wind – are still relative minnows, and their voices and lobby dollars are consequently miniscule.
Remembering that the last ten years of climate change inaction were due in large part to the coffers of vested interests.
Another ominous voice arising – on the back of existing industry and financial resources – is biomass energy. Whereas this once revolved around harnessing waste, the loudest voices now belong to those proposing to harvest crops grown specifically for biomass energy production. This cannot be seen as a positive at all. Such activity would not only exacerbate the problems with broadacre farming by agribusinesses whose reinvestment in the soil is scant, not only will it divert agriculture away from food production – especially at the margins where food is most needed – but it will also accelerate the destruction of wilderness in places like Brazil and Indonesia.
The bottom line on energy production is not to shut down economic activity, but to switch energy production to those areas that make the most intuitive sense – properly renewable energy. And I can only see one source that is no-impact and – on our timescale – limitless.