Net zero is not zero

Authors: Kathleen McAfee*, San Francisco State University
Topics: Environment, Environmental Justice, Cultural and Political Ecology
Keywords: climate change, carbon trading, offsets, California, REDD
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/10/2021
Start / End Time: 3:05 PM / 4:20 PM
Room: Virtual 18
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Offsetting, widely embraced as a “market solution” to global warming, is in fashion among governments, universities, oil companies, and businesses of all sorts. Most intend to achieve “net zero” greenhouse-gas emissions partly or entirely by buying carbon-offset credits, many based on forest conservation and other so-called natural climate solutions. Offsets are meant only to compensate for damage caused by emissions from one place by absorbing or preventing the release of an equivalent amount somewhere else. But offsets do not do this in practice, for reasons predicted by theory and widely recognized in the literature. In practice, offsets legitimize continued emissions. At best, forest-based offsets have resulted in no change in total emissions, and 15 years of experience with REDD+ shows that “best” is rarely attainable. In California, the use of offsets has been embraced by the fossil-fuel lobby but has worsened environmental injustice by enabling polluting companies to increase their emissions of GHGs and toxic co-pollutants in low-income communities. There is an ongoing battle in California, in the Paris-pact talks, and in climate politics more broadly over how much fossil-fuel industries and industrial countries will be allowed to delay real climate action by acting as if offsets were actual “reductions”.

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