There have been a couple of articles of late challenging the value of carbon offsets. This piece in The Conversation argued that offsets can do more harm than good, because companies can gain more from the greenwash than is delivered to the environment. This piece on Mother Earth News continued the theme stating that offsetting companies can continue to discharge their greenhouse gases.
Maybe there is another way of thinking about this issue. What happens if you look at it from the point of view of the offsets projects themselves?
Consider this: across the north of Australia there are currently 12 savanna burning projects working to reduce the massive late season fires by initiating a patchwork of cool burns in the early dry season. Seven of the projects are Indigenous controlled or have Indigenous participation. The projects provide jobs in remote locations where opportunities are few. There is reduction in fire haze. The cooler fires make it easier on biodiversity. Traditional connections with country are improved. Traditional owners are participating in a business, not a handout from the government. There are many extra benefits other than just the carbon reductions. And the projects are making significant savings against Australia's emissions.
Who would say these projects are not worthwhile? The Gold Standard reported on the value beyond carbon that offset projects can provide.
Of course, there are other ways to get these outcomes. But when thinking about carbon, fundamental problems for the land sector are the disparate landholding with tens of thousands of landholders and the complex nature of land sector carbon accounting. Compare this to the 350 companies covering 60% of Australia’s emissions who had to pay the carbon price based on much more straight forward accounting of fuel inputs and the like. At the moment, an opt in incentive scheme for the land sector makes sense.
And that is basically what the Carbon Farming Initiative is – an incentive scheme to reduce land and agricultural emissions. The CFI is the first nationally legislated carbon offsets scheme in the world. It meets the difficult challenges of additionality, genuine abatement and perverse impacts on the environment head on – challenges that often plague some overseas projects (disclosure: I worked on development of the CFI legislation). The land sector is incredibly difficult to regulate for carbon but without a scheme encouraging innovation such as the CFI Australia's land and agricultural emissions may well be around 50% of Australia's total by 2050.
It is a complex story and there is much more to say. Offsets do not replace reducing industrial emissions but if it costs $60 a tonne to close down a factory which loses jobs, why not use some land sector projects at $20 a tonne which creates jobs first? At the end of the day, storing carbon in the land is the only way we can deal with some of the legacy emissions already in the atmosphere.
We are still thinking about ways of telling the story that, when done right, offsets in Australia can be a force for good.