What is the greenwashing trick?
Paying to take credit for someone else’s climate action so a company can continue polluting and still reach its climate targets.
Many big corporations, including big livestock companies, do not meet their climate targets by cutting emissions from their business operations. Instead, they buy carbon credits (also known as “carbon offsets”) from someone else, who removes carbon from the atmosphere or cuts emissions from their own business.
This practice is called offsetting, and while carbon offsets are traded as carbon credits on a carbon market, offsetting can allow polluters to evade or delay making actual emissions cuts, because they can and claim credit for emissions reductions made by others instead.
How is this greenwashing trick being used?
Almost every major meat and dairy company that has announced climate plans is using offsets to help “meet” its climate targets. Danone, Nestle, JBS and many others continue emitting greenhouse gases, but by buying carbon credits from other companies, they get to claim that they are making progress on their climate goals. Companies like Danone have even set up their own carbon credit trading schemes.
But on a global scale, offsets have not actually led to emissions reductions, and our total greenhouse gas emissions worldwide continue to increase. The carbon market is not yet regulated by any government or held to any one international standard, which means shoddy carbon credits that do not result in real climate action can be held up by high-emitters as “proof” of their progress on climate change.
Companies that want to “offset” their greenhouse gas emissions may buy credits from businesses or communities that:
1) Avoid additional emissions. For example, a business or community may sell carbon credits for avoiding deforestation in a particular forest. However, it can be difficult to calculate and verify how much emissions these types of credits actually avoid. Projects that appear to avoid emissions have come under fire for example in Australia, where a company selling carbon credits was getting credit for “protecting” forests that were not in danger of being cleared – meaning the emissions the project promised to avoid were never going to occur in the first place.
2) Make emission reductions. For example, a company that uses more renewable energy may be awarded carbon offsets that it can sell to other, high-emitting companies.
3) Temporarily remove carbon from the atmosphere, for example by planting trees or sequestering carbon in agricultural soils. However, carbon stored in soils and forests is often stored only temporarily, because human activity and events like fires, floods and droughts can easily release their stored carbon back into the atmosphere.
Avoiding emissions and reducing emissions do not actually take existing carbon out of the atmosphere but, in the best case scenario, may reduce the amount of new emissions added to the atmosphere.
Why is this bad for the climate crisis?
Simply put, carbon offsets allow polluters to continue polluting. Offsets allow companies to delay or avoid taking real climate action. They can allow companies to hide emissions rather than reducing them.
Without meaningfully reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we push closer to irreversible climate tipping points. If we want to restrict global heating and secure a liveable planet, polluters must make drastic emissions cuts – not “offset” their climate impact.
Setting up carbon credit schemes based on land in local communities and Indigenous territories of the Global South can also lead to land grabs, exacerbate struggles over land rights and allow corporations to increase their control over land.