Science - February 14, 2008

Is climate compensation a big illusion?

It’s very popular to have a tree planted so you can fly or drive a car. But offsetting carbon dioxide emissions may sound better than it is. Recent research by de Volkskrant newspaper suggests that compensation projects are misleading. Many ‘climate forests’ are not planted with money from polluting companies and individuals. Worse still, most of the forests were already there before the idea of compensation was even thought of.

Newly planted trees.
Professor Arthur Mol, chair of Environmental Policy
‘Of course things go wrong with climate compensation. Other countries’ experiences show that prevention of CO2 emissions is better than compensation, because there’s less opportunity for cheating. Systems that are badly set up, where checks are not done properly and fraudulent reporting takes place, are a problem. Even when CO2 offset takes place through well-thought-out schemes, it’s still possible to question their effectiveness. It’s difficult to judge the effect of measures intended to compensate for climate change. It depends on what you include and exclude. We see this in the discussion on biofuel as well. Nearly all crop-based fuels are come out negatively in climate terms because the carbon debt is not included. Put simply, the climate discussion is becoming even more complex. But it’s not just about figures. All discussions on climate compensation or measures focus on emissions, but if we look further than the figures, we see that compensation projects can increase public support for measures. Maybe climate forests aren’t the best way to offset CO2 emissions, but they create a prospect of negotiation for the public and support for climate policy. I don’t think either that people just offset their emissions through compensation projects so that they can continue wasteful energy use. That’s a bit like saying that people buy energy-saving lamps so they can keep them on for longer. If people were really so indifferent they wouldn’t be bothered at all about being climate neutral.’

Professor Ekko van Ierland, chair of Environmental Economics and Natural Resources
‘Compensation projects can work, but only under very strict conditions. First of all, the forests must really be new. If people put their money into existing forests they are throwing money away. These forests do store CO2, but they already did so. Of course it’s important to maintain forests, but we don’t get any further by putting compensation money into them. If you do that, you can put your money into any tree. It’s difficult to determine whether a project is new. Both the paying and the receiving party have an interest in good results. For the financiers it’s good that they can buy off their carbon emissions, and of course the receiving organisations are happy with the extra money. Those who are most closely involved are also most likely to exaggerate results. For this reason, good monitoring of the projects is very important. At project level it’s possible to see if something is new or not. But we have to look further than that one area where trees are being planted. The chance is very real that new forests will lead to the idea that now there’s so much forest everywhere, we can cut down trees in other places. In that case compensation projects will all be for nothing. The whole point is that the total number of trees increases, at national and ultimately at global level.’