We mustn’t be fooled by fossil fuel giants’ latest offset plans.
Momentum for action on the climate emergency has appeared unstoppable in recent weeks.
Extinction Rebellion activists brought key parts of London to a standstill. Striking school kids flooded the streets of cities around the world. Even the high priests of international banking and investment have declared that companies which don’t adapt to global warming won’t survive.
But as grassroots’ pressure to prevent ecological collapse intensifies, so does the resistance of those with the most to lose.
A dangerous diversion
Earlier this month, activists and environmental groups launched a lawsuit against Shell, accusing it of ‘unlawfully endangering peoples’ lives by not acting to prevent global warming’.
Shortly afterwards, the company announced that it was planning to invest US $300 million “in natural ecosystems” over the next three years.
What this meant practically, the company said, was that motorists in the Netherlands who filled their tanks at Shell service stations “would be able to drive carbon neutral through the use of nature-based carbon credits”. These carbon credits would come from Shell’s investment in forest restoration projects, including in the Netherlands and Spain.
Shell’s announcement echoed that made three weeks before by the Italian energy giant company Eni, who said it planned to eliminate all carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions from its oil and gas production and exploration operations, by planting 20 million acres of forest to draw carbon from the atmosphere, across an area of southern Africa four times that of Wales.
But fossil fuel companies’ burgeoning interest in forest offset projects doesn’t only reap them positive media coverage: it gives them cover under which to hide the very business models that are driving climate breakdown.
The scientific solution to combating climate change is already clear: we need to restore ecosystems and drastically reduce emissions. It is too late to do one or the other.
Whenever companies talk of forest offset initiatives, it is therefore essential to ask: is the company doing everything it can to first reduce or end its emissions and does the proposed initiative work with forest dependent people to truly reduce deforestation and forest degradation?
And on the first, based on their own scenario, Shell, for instance, intends to keep extracting fossil fuels well into the 2040s and plans to deal with those emissions through a massive deployment of a technology that has been rejected as unrealistic by the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council.
On the second, it’s clear that decades of forestry carbon projects have not halted the global trend of increasing deforestation.
Even aside from the voluminous evidence challenging the environmental integrity of forest offset projects – including the entire UN regulatory carbon market – there are specific issues with Shell’s plans.
Quite simply, none of Shell’s intended European forestry projects can generate carbon offsets. This is because any carbon these forests remove from the atmosphere will already be accounted for – under the European Union’s climate laws.
Any tree planted in the EU can be counted by Member States under the land use and forests sector, otherwise known as the Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) Regulation and therefore they are not eligible to be repackaged and sold as ‘additional’ CO₂ reductions.
Any climate solutions that don’t reduce emissions and stop the extraction of fossil fuels is doomed to fail. Companies like Shell need to change their very business model – we are way beyond a time when the proposed planting of trees can be allowed to enable business as usual to continue.
Obfuscation and clever marketing
A clearer sign of how committed oil and gas companies are to fighting climate change is that in 2018 they only invested 1% of their budgets in renewable energy, and lobbied to reject a public petition for a carbon tax in the United States.
This is in line with the biggest fossil fuel companies’ well-documented history of hiding their knowledge of climate change’s impact, while spending millions on lobbyists and think-tanks to spread doubt about the science.
Obfuscation and clever marketing by fossil fuel companies will not lead us out of the climate crisis. Swift and steep emissions cuts, along with protecting and restoring forests, and transforming how we manage and use land, will.
Kelsey Perlman is a Forests and Climate campaigner at Fern.