Where other offsets see trees planted or solar panels installed, Popoffsets will pay for contraceptives and education in Africa and Asia.This is apparently the cheapest way to offset carbon emissions, with a tonne of carbon saved for every £4 spent. “Human activity is exacerbating global warming,” says OPT director Roger Martin. “Higher population levels inevitably mean higher emissions and more climate victims.”
Now, I’m all in favour of contraception and education for women, and it’s great that the trust is pursuing those goals. However, there is something deeply disturbing about selling those as an offset. It implies that the people most responsible for climate change are the poor, and that if we stop them breeding, we can carry on flying, driving and consuming. That’s an abrogation of responsibility of massive proportions.
1) Population is not the biggest cause of climate change.
Make no mistake, population is a factor in climate change, but it is by no means the driving force. “It is not the growth in population but the growth in consumption that drives the growth in greenhouse gas emissions” says an International Institute for Development and Environment report from earlier this year. The highest levels of population growth are in the poorest fifth of the world, but take a look at this chart showing human contributions to greenhouse gas (GHG) levels:
The contribution of the poor to climate change is minuscule. In fact, the average ecological footprint of the world’s poorest people is actually getting smaller. Here’s a graph from the WWF’s Living Planet report.
Honestly now, let’s own our own emissions and take responsibility.
2) Offsets will not prevent climate change
The second massive flaw in this sorry scheme is the idea of offsets. By the logic of offsetting, you can pay someone not to emit carbon on your behalf, and carry on with a clear conscience. This is a bit like saying it’s okay to run people down in your SUV as long as you pay their medical bills. Aside from the injustice and dodging of responsibility, offsets can only ever prevent future emissions. They cannot reduce them. Since global CO2 emissions are already too high, preventing a potential future increase doesn’t help. What matters is what George Marshall calls ‘the carbon bottom line’.
Offsets are a form of commodified denial, allowing us to buy pollution permits rather than cutting down on our environmentally profligate lifestyles. As George Monbiot says “any scheme that persuades us we can carry on polluting delays the point at which we grasp the nettle of climate change and accept that our lives have to change.”
In short, PopOffsets is a marriage of two distractions – offsetting and population. The real business of climate change is cutting consumption, as fast and as deep as possible.
- UPDATE: I am not alone in thinking this is rather over the top. Here’s Leo Hickman’s article Population offsetting? Fertile ground for ridicule
- UPDATE: Friends of the Earth’s Head of Climate Change Mike Childs has also commented on the idea: “The idea of paying for birth control in developing countries to offset carbon-intensive lifestyles in rich countries is repugnant. Rich countries caused climate change and their reluctance to cut their own emissions is pushing the planet to the brink of climate chaos.”