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A ruse of Olympic proportions: BP's carbon offsets

Posted Aug. 6, 2012 / Posted by: Michelle Chan

My husband is a self-described Olympics junkie, and our television has been on nonstop since the opening ceremonies. As a result, I have been barraged by the full spectrum of TV commercials -- all of them attempts to bathe corporate logos in the warm flame of Olympic glory.

The irony of some of these corporate sponsorships isn’t lost on most people. McDonalds (home of the Angus bacon cheeseburger -- clocking in at 39 grams of fat!) as an official sponsor of the world’s most elite sporting event. Coca Cola, leading purveyor of sugary drinks to our youth, linking the fizziness of its soda with the effervescence of the Games. (Rather than, let’s say the obesity epidemic. Did you know that over the last 20 years soda consumption has been responsible for one fifth of the weight gain in the US?)

And my personal favorite: BP as the official provider of carbon offsets. We’re talking about an oil company helping Olympic athletes and spectators go carbon neutral.

As a group that for the last several years has examined the viability of offsets as a way of reducing greenhouse gas pollution in the atmosphere, Friends of the Earth has always viewed carbon offsets as a dangerous distraction.  BP’s “Target Neutral” initiative is no different.

Many people have likened offsets to the medieval practice of indulgences, in which a sinner could be pardoned for their sins by giving a donation to the church. Offsets -- especially cheap ones -- make it far too easy to simply pay for our carbon sins, rather than actually change our ways.

To illustrate how ludicrous the offsetting concept is, spoof company CheatNeutral (check out their hilarious film) allows people to cheat on their spouses or boyfriend/ girlfriend, but offset that infidelity by paying someone else to be faithful. It’s a brilliant parody, as most people instinctively know that you shouldn’t cheat in the first place, and that paying someone else to remain faithful for you is not only nonsensical, but a recipe for relationship disaster.

And so it is with carbon offsets and climate disaster. Buying carbon credits to offset our driving may assuage our guilt, but it also distracts us from the tougher challenge of driving less. At their worse, offsets lull us into a false sense of complacency that we have done our part, dulling us to the urgent need to work for larger, political changes to tackle the climate crisis.

And when companies like BP get into the business of offsets, it allows the company to create yet another kind of distraction – offsets allow them to misdirect us towards their greenwashing, rather than their oily legacy in the Gulf of Mexico. BP offsets divert our focus towards the feel-good fantasy of carbon neutrality, rather than the monumental problem of our global oil addiction. Because of course, the longer it takes for us to kick our oil addiction, the more money BP makes. Delay is the name of the game for BP.

But delay is also our worst enemy in the fight against climate change. When this delay occurs not just in our own lives, but within our public policy, offsets are even more dangerous. 

For example, as part of California’s climate policy, the state is going to launch a carbon trading program in 2013. But under this program, companies only have to make about half of those emissions reductions themselves – the other half (and in reality, it can be a lot more, up to 85 percent) can be met by buying offsets. 

This means that refineries would be allowed to defer cleaning up their facilities, and to continue emitting carbon and other co-pollutants. This delay not only robs Californians of the jobs and economic opportunities that are promised by transitioning to a low carbon economy, but it also perpetuates environmental injustice.  By delaying action, offsets exacerbate pollution hotspots around fenceline communities (usually lower income people of color), who are already disproportionately burdened by toxics.

Finally, offsets prevent needed regulations from being implemented. For example, California's powerful agriculture lobby successfully ensured that factory farms would be exempt from mandatory greenhouse gas regulations. After all, why be subject to greenhouse gas limits, when you can voluntarily sell carbon offsets for a profit?

With such problems, it’s no wonder that California is being sued in an attempt to strip carbon offsets out of its cap and trade program.  On one side are environmental groups like Our Children’s Earth and Citizens Climate Lobby, who are worried about the environmental integrity of offsets. On the other side are polluters like the Pacific Gas and Electric and World Oil Corp, who of course want to delay needed emissions reductions.

With a contest like that, it’s not hard to know which team to root for.

(Cartoon by Ron Barrett of the New York Times)

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