This week, the Albanian government is trying to reform the safeguard mechanism in an attempt to reduce fossil carbon emissions from our dirtiest industrial facilities.
Experts and commentators see the Labor plan as a cautious and incremental move that has yet to match 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 the path to reducing their emissions and be a springboard for more ambitious change.
But there is an obvious problem. According to the rules proposed by the government, polluters are still not required to reduce their emissions when they are released into the atmosphere. Instead, companies can choose to purchase carbon credits or offsets to meet their obligations. Incredibly, there would be no limit to the amount of offsets companies can use.
Flexible offset programs and fossil carbon
You’ve probably heard of flexible compensation plans and integrity issues in Australia. But there is an even more fundamental problem. A ton of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels is not the same as a ton of carbon stored in the tree trunks of a newly planted forest.
Carbon from gas, oil and coal has been safely stored underground for extraordinary times. But when trees pick up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, they can only store it for a short time.
There’s just no easy way to fix it. Avoiding the worst of climate change means stopping the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. Compromises will not save us. In fact, the unlimited use of offsets could lead to even more emissions, if coal and gas companies “offset” emissions and increase their exports.
Why can’t we trust nature to extract carbon dioxide from the air?
In 2023, many lawmakers still believe we can adequately offset emissions. It would certainly be easier if we could continue to burn fossil fuels and offset that by planting forests. But it does not work. It is simply not possible to fully “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 by 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, the ocean, in the soil, in all living beings, in rocks and sediments. It is constantly cycled 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 that has been locked up for millions of years (hence “fossil” fuels), injecting significant new amounts of 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 re-lock carbon deep underground. Instead, the fossil carbon introduced is still part of the activated carbon cycle.
To compound the problem, much of the carbon stored in terrestrial offsets does not remain stored. Forests can be easily destroyed by fires, disease, floods and drought, all of which are increasing with climate change.
Offsets are the last resort, nothing more
Despite these issues, 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 offsets must be strictly capped and dwindle over time as opportunities for real emissions reductions, at source, grow and evolve rapidly.
Unfortunately, paying offsets is the first and only thing many big companies do when it comes to their harmful emissions.
If we allow fossil fuel companies to offset their emissions without limits, they will continue business as usual or even expand their operations. This, in turn, will mean many more emissions when Australian fossil fuels are burned overseas.
Our leaders must avoid the compensation trap
It’s taken Australia too long, but we’ve finally overcome climate denial, perhaps due to unprecedented fires and floods. Our leaders tell us that it is now a question of finding solutions. Well, compromises are not a solution. There is no substitute for stopping the routine burning of fossil fuels.
We all want our comfortable lives to continue with minimal changes. Offsets seem to offer that. But all they really do is offset our guilt and responsibility. They cannot solve the central problem, which is that every year we add an additional 33 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels.
The environment does not respond to good intentions or ingenious plans. It only reacts to the volume of greenhouse gases that trap more and more heat.
If Labor wants to make the safeguard mechanism fit for purpose, it must focus on real emission reductions at source.
What Australia is doing is very important to global efforts to tackle the climate crisis. If Australia becomes the first major fossil fuel exporter to embrace a future as a clean energy superpower, it will show that it is possible and that it comes with benefits such as new industries, cleaner air and energy security.
But first, we have to let go of the compensated chimeras. The only thing that matters is reducing emissions.
This article was written by Wesley Morgan, a researcher at the Griffith Asia Institute at Griffith University.