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(E)mission improbable: Five weird and unworkable carbon offsetting ideas

What do camels, whales and breast-fed babies have in common? They’ve all been put forward as ways to offset emissions. We delve into some of the weirdest carbon crediting ideas and explain why they do not work for the climate.

The controversial practice of using carbon credits to offset emissions is ineffective at the best of times for reasons we have thoroughly explained before

That being said, not all offsetting endeavours are created equal. Some not only have a dubious climate impact but take creative accounting to such far-fetched lengths that they deserve a prize. Here, we award some of the most bizarre and surreal examples.

Milking carbon markets

The science is clear: breast milk is the ideal food for infants. It is safe, clean and helps to boost a baby’s immunity. In addition, breastfed children perform better on intelligence tests, are less likely to be overweight and are less prone to diabetes later in life, while breastfeeding women have a reduced risk of breast and ovarian cancer, according to the World Health Organisation.

What is less clear is why breastmilk should be used for carbon offsets, yet this is exactly what a group of Australian scientists proposed in the Bulletin of the World Health Organisation.

The study argues that the emissions saved by substituting human breast milk for polluting commercially produced formula milk should be transformed into carbon credits, through the ineffective and highly problematic Clean Development Mechanism, and used to reward women in developing countries who breastfeed and to finance initiatives to promote the practice.

“Breastfeeding women nourish half the world’s infants and young children with immense quantities of a highly valuable milk. This care work is not counted in gross domestic product or national food balance sheets, and yet ever increasing commercial milk formula sales are counted,” the authors rightly point out. “Achieving global nutrition targets for breastfeeding would realise far greater reductions

in greenhouse gas emissions than decarbonising commercial milk formula manufacturing.”

It is entirely true that breastfeeding, like other nurturing and domestic roles, is undervalued or not valued at all in our current economic system, however this is primarily a socioeconomic issue and not really a climate one. Although the attempt here to force it into a climate mould is well meaning because the aim is to unlock desperately needed funds, the implicit commodification of women’s bodies and the potential coercive effect of market forces to limit a woman’s freedom to choose embedded in this idea is troubling.

Besides these ethical concerns, the paper does not deal with the very practical issue of how the net climate benefit can be measured. While the carbon footprint of commercial baby formula is relatively straightforward to estimate, working out the commensurate carbon footprint of breastmilk is riddled with difficulties because it would depend on the individual mother’s diet, lifestyle and wealth.

The emissions from the production of milk formula and other dairy products are better tackled at the source. This can be achieved through a mix of health, social, economic and environmental policies to curtail production. 

One component of this can certainly be making dairy producers pay for their pollution through such mechanisms as cap-and-trade emissions trading systems. However, given that breastfeeding is primarily an issue of public health and gender rights, it should be supported through appropriate policies and mechanisms.

Carbon hoofprints

Camels are impressive creatures. They are not only capable of going up to 10 days without drinking a drop of water thanks to their unique metabolism, they can also withstand changes in bodily temperature and hydration levels that would kill other mammals. This makes them ideal desert farers. 

This stamina and adaptability proved problematic when the British decided to introduce camels to Australia in the 19th century for transport and other purposes, uses which were rendered obsolete by motorised vehicles, whereupon many were simply let loose into the wild, where they faced no natural predators. 

From about 20,000 beasts in the 19th century, there are thought to be up to 1.2 million feral camels roaming the Australian outback today. The camels compete with indigenous wildlife for resources and upset the delicate balance of local ecosystems. They are also regarded as a nuisance by farmers and cattle ranchers. 

To tackle this challenge, one company suggested declaring open hunting season on the wild camels and rewarding would-be bounty hunters with carbon credits that would be generated under Australia’s so-called Carbon Farming Initiative. The poor camels would either be shot from helicopters or rounded up and sent to slaughterhouses to be turned into food for pets and humans.

Although there are environmental benefits to controlling the wild camel population to ensure it doesn’t damage the ecosystem, this should be carried out in a controlled manner by the state for sound ecological reasons rather than turning the Australian outback into a gunslinging Wild West of camel bounty hunters. 

In addition, the long-term climate benefits of such an initiative are questionable. A hallmark of good quality carbon credits is permanence. However, without constant population control, for generations in the case of offsetting, there is a considerable risk that the camel population would recover, given that there are no natural predators or competitors in Australia that can keep the population down. If these temporary reductions were then to be used as offsets, the arrival of the new animals could potentially lead to a net rise, rather than fall, in emissions.

Moreover, not only do camels release less methane than cows and sheep, accurately estimating the exact volume of greenhouse gases that would be spared in order to use the resulting carbon credits to offset emissions is riddled with huge uncertainty.

Hear our wails

A classic example from the annals is whales, or more precisely, whale excrement. I shit you not.

It all began back in 2010, when Australian scientists released a study that suggested that sperm whales are carbon negative, i.e. they remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than they release into it, because their iron-rich poo is quite literally fodder for phytoplankton. Moreover, there is reportedly little danger of end-of-lifecycle emissions, assuming the whales die a natural death, because the up to 33 tonnes of carbon trapped in their bodies sink to the bottom of the ocean, where there is little risk of it finding its way into the atmosphere. 

“[Sperm whales] eat their diet, mainly squid, in the deep ocean, and defecate in the upper waters where phytoplankton can grow, having access to sunlight,” marine biologist Trish Lavery said in a statement at the time. “Sperm whale poo is rich in iron, which stimulates phytoplankton to grow and trap carbon. When the phytoplankton die, the trapped carbon sinks to the deep ocean.”

The Whale Carbon Plus Project, one well-intentioned pilot project launched a couple of years ago, wanted governments to estimate the amount of carbon sequestered by the marine ecosystem thanks to whales and to sell this captured carbon in the form of credits that could be sold to companies and individuals wishing to offset their emissions. In addition, they advocate that those who cause the death of a whale should be fined an amount equivalent to these ecosystem services. The revenue raised from such a scheme would be used to finance whale conservation projects and provide revenue to indigenous and local communities.

Although I am loath to pooh-pooh this idea, carbon markets are ill-fitted for this purpose, even if the environmental and social aims of the project are admirable. Beyond a whale’s immeasurable value as an intelligent life form, trying to estimate its complex value to the environment in climate terms alone is hugely problematic.

In addition, this kind of nature-based sequestration suffers from the same types of shortcomings and challenges as forestry projects, which have been repeatedly exposed for overestimating their climate impact. There are also huge uncertainties about the permanence of the carbon storage because, for example, not all dead plankton and whales will sink to the bottom, enabling the CO2 they hold to re-enter the atmosphere-ocean carbon cycle.

Beyond the huge uncertainty involved in estimating, measuring and monitoring the amount of CO2 these “marine ecosystem engineers” reduce, it is not clear, as is the case with REDD+ forestry projects, what the additional benefits to the climate, a vital cornerstone of carbon credit creation, would be. The whales are already there and play their role in the ecosystem without any human intervention. Even if carbon credits are generated based on conservation or mating efforts, it would involve a counterfactual estimate of the carbon saved compared to a hypothetical situation in which there was no conservation effort – a process riddled with risks.

Instead of forcing whale conservation into an ill-fitting carbon market straitjacket, it requires direct public and private funding that protects these magnificent creatures and restores their depleted populations.

Iron supplements and drops in the ocean

Another suggested method for promoting phytoplankton growth for carbon sequestration is quite literally to give the ocean iron supplements. This proposed geoengineering technique is known as ocean iron fertilisation and involves dumping compounds containing iron, which is an important trace element in photosynthesis, in iron-poor areas of the ocean surface.

However, questions abound about the wisdom and potentially disastrous environmental impact of ocean iron fertilisation on complex and fragile marine ecosystems. Moreover, it is far from certain how much carbon this technique would be able to remove from the atmosphere and how permanently it would be able to store it. Early experiments, for example, showed that while the iron did generate phytoplankton, most of it was munched up by zooplankton instead of sinking to the bottom of the ocean.

Fortunately, a binding international ban on commercial ocean iron fertilisation came into force a decade ago.

However, other forms of problematic geoengineering of the ocean continue to be explored. One example is meant to work rather like how antacids treat acid reflux or heartburn: through the introduction of alkaline solutions to reduce the acidity of the ocean and neutralise carbon dioxide. A huge potential drawback of this technique, if carried out at the kind of megascale that would be required to help tackle the climate crisis, is that it could detrimentally affect the chemical balance of the marine environment in a whole variety of unexpected ways.

Another ocean geoengineering technique that is rising in popularity and evoking interest in the voluntary carbon market is known as biomass sinking. In brief, it involves taking waste vegetation from on land, such as forestry and farming waste, and dumping it into the deep sea at appropriate locations. This would ensure, in theory, that the carbon contained in this biomass does not return to the atmosphere.

However, the reality of this experimental technique is unlikely to live up to its promise. One challenge is that suitable locations with oxygenless or oxygen-poor deepwater seabeds need to be found close to where organic waste is produced, otherwise it would require the wasteful transportation of biomass around the globe.

If a large market for this technique develops, it also comes with significant risks. For instance, project developers may stop carefully scouting for and vetting suitable locations. If the biomass were to be dumped in locations that prove to be unsuitable, it could harm marine life. Conversely, removing this biomass from the land could harm land fertility by interrupting the natural decomposition cycle that enriches soil. In any case, it would be extremely inefficient to waste biomass this way – and extra demand for the limited supply of sustainable biomass should be avoided.

Engine of change

Using sustainable mobility solutions and getting paid to do so sounds like a dream. And this is what the Mobility Carbon Engine app promises. Users simply select a destination and the low-carbon mode of transportation they will use. The app then tracks their journey, calculates the amount of emissions saved, transforms these into carbon credits and sells them.

Although this sounds like a win-win solution at first sight, the app suffers from a number of weaknesses. Beyond the general problem with offsetting emissions highlighted above, the Mobile Carbon Engine calculates the estimated emissions reductions based on an individualised baseline. While this goes some way towards demonstrating some form of additionality, it is an unfair and potentially counterproductive measure. 

Another dimension of the fairness equation is that road users unwilling to reduce their own climate impact can buy the savings to offset their own emissions, which shifts the burden of emissions reductions onto fewer shoulders, potentially those of poorer road users.

When it comes to the climate, at best, the net effect of this initiative will be non-existent, as the emissions reductions are sold to other road users as a licence to pollute. However, if any error occurs with the estimation of the reductions, it could lead to a net increase in emissions. 

Additionally, by focusing on individual journeys, the behavioural change the app encourages is not long-term or sustainable.

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