A ton of fossil carbon is not the same as a ton of new trees

This week, the Albanian government is trying to reform the safeguard mechanism to try to reduce fossil carbon emissions from our most polluting industrial facilities.

Experts and commentators see the labor plan as a cautious, incremental move that is not yet commensurate with the urgency of the intensifying climate crisis. But it could gain momentum after a lost decade of climate denial and delays under the previous government. Done right, it could put our biggest industrial polluters on a path to reducing their emissions and be a stepping stone to more ambitious change.

But there is an obvious problem. According to the rules proposed by the government, there is still no requirement that polluters reduce their emissions when they are released into the atmosphere. Instead, companies can choose to buy carbon credits or offsets to meet their obligations. Incredibly, there would be no limit to the amount of offsets companies can use.

Flexible offset and fossil carbon schemes

You’ve probably heard of Australia’s flexible compensation schemes and integrity issues. But there is an even more fundamental problem. A ton of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels is not the same as a ton of carbon stored in the trunks of a newly planted forest.

Carbon from gas, oil and coal has been safely stored underground for extraordinary periods of time. But when trees take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, they can only store it for a short time.

There is simply no way to fix it easily. Avoiding the worst of climate change means stopping the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. Exchanges will not save us. In fact, unlimited use of offsets could lead to even more emissions if coal and gas companies “offset” emissions and increase exports.

Why can’t we trust nature to extract carbon dioxide from the air?

In 2023, many policymakers still believe we can adequately offset emissions. It would certainly be easier if we could continue to burn fossil fuels and compensate for this by planting forests. But it does not work. It is simply not possible to completely “offset” billions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions from burning coal, oil and gas by regenerating forests, increasing the amount of carbon in soils or other measures.

This is because the carbon dioxide released by burning fossil fuels is fundamentally different from the way carbon is stored on the surface of trees, wetlands and soil.

Carbon is everywhere on Earth: in the atmosphere, in the ocean, in soils, in all living things, and in rocks and sediments. He is constantly going through these different forms. Carbon is also continuously exchanged between the atmosphere and the ocean surface. Together, these processes form the Earth’s “active” carbon cycle.

When we burn fossil fuels, we release carbon trapped for millions of years (hence “fossil” fuels), injecting large amounts of new carbon into the activated carbon cycle. This is clearly upsetting the carbon balance in the Earth system, and faster than ever recorded in Earth’s geological history. Planting trees does not lock carbon underground. Instead, the introduced fossil carbon continues to be part of the activated carbon cycle.

Compounding the problem, much of the carbon stored in land offsets does not remain in storage. Forests can be easily destroyed by fires, diseases, floods and droughts, which are increasing with climate change.

Offsets are the last resort, nothing more

Despite these problems, offsets will continue to play a small role. Some emissions cannot be avoided or reduced today as low emission technologies for industries such as steel are still expanding. But these trade-offs must be strictly capped and reduced over time, as opportunities for genuine emissions reductions, at source, develop and rapidly increase.

Unfortunately, pay compensations it’s the first and only thing many large companies do about their harmful emissions.

If we allow fossil fuel companies to offset their emissions without limits, they will remain as usual or even expand their operations. This, in turn, will mean significantly more emissions when Australian fossil fuels are burned abroad.

Our Leaders Must Avoid the Compensation Trap

It took Australia too many decades, but we finally got over climate denial, perhaps due to unprecedented fires and floods. Our leaders tell us that now it’s time to find solutions. Well, offsets are not a solution. There is no substitute for ending the routine burning of fossil fuels.

We all want our comfortable lives to continue with a minimum of changes. Offsets seem to provide this. But all they really do is make up for our guilt and responsibility. They cannot solve the core problem, which is that each year we add another 33 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels.

The environment does not respond to good intentions or ingenious schemes. All it responds to is the volume of greenhouse gases trapping more and more heat.

If work is to make the safeguard mechanism fit for purpose, it must focus on genuine emission reductions at source.

What Australia is doing is very important to the world’s efforts to deal with the climate crisis. If Australia becomes the first major exporter of fossil fuels to embrace a future as a clean energy superpower, it will show that it is possible and that it brings benefits such as new industries, cleaner air and energy security.

First, though, we have to give up on compensated dreams. The only thing that matters is reducing emissions.

This article was written by Wesley Morgan, Research Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute at Griffith University.


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