New Report Urges U.S. To Avoid Reliance on International Carbon Offsets

Friends of the Earth U.S. released a new report today calling the use of international carbon offsets a “dangerous distraction” that could lead to climate disaster if relied upon too heavily as the U.S. Senate returns to debate energy and climate policy later this month. 

Offsets are a centerpiece of the Waxman-Markey energy bill that passed the House of Representatives in June, and are likely to appear in the Senate version as well.

The Friends of the Earth report warns that the U.S. must avoid the use of international carbon offsets, in which U.S. industries can skip making costly investments to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions by sending money overseas for clean energy projects in developing countries.  The theory is that these international investments will translate into equivalent reductions at the fraction of the price it would cost to change our ways here at home. 

But in practice, FoE reports, international offsetting does not guarantee the same level of reductions as would investment in switching to low- or no-carbon technologies in developed countries like the U.S.  In fact, the allure of purchasing offsets has caused major delays in urgently-needed emissions cuts in the developed world.

The report, titled “A Dangerous Distraction: Why Offsets Are a Mistake The U.S. Cannot Afford To Make,” analyzed the efficacy of carbon offsets and determined that they are not working nearly as well as proponents argue.  “U.S. polluters send money overseas in exchange for promised - and often pretend - pollution reductions elsewhere,” FoE claims. 

“Offsetting does not lead to promised additional emissions cuts in developing countries while it delays essential structural change in the U.S. economy and in turn slows the growth of green jobs,” says  Friends of the Earth President Brent Blackwelder.

“It is suicide to base our future on offsets. Offsets provide the illusion of taking action to stop global warming when in fact they often allow emissions to rise,” said Michael Despines of Friends of the Earth, one of the authors of the report.  

“The offsets in the bill that recently passed the House could allow the United States to keep increasing emissions of heat-trapping gases until 2029, even though scientists say we need to reduce emissions now,” said Karen Orenstein, a climate finance campaigner at Friends of the Earth.

Any cap-and-trade scheme which relies on offsets can result in ‘subprime carbon,’ according to Michelle Chan, author of another report released by Friends of the Earth this spring. “When offset credits don’t deliver promised greenhouse gas reductions, they can collapse in financial value, harming broader financial markets. We need to reduce actual emissions, not create a new source of financial risk,” said Chan.

Read the new Friends of the Earth report.