Despite pressure from across civil society, world leaders have given the offsets scam a boost at the UN Climate Change Summit COP26 in Glasgow – the dangerous loopholes opened endanger Indigenous Peoples, nature and the 1.5ºC goal itself.

Greenpeace International launched a Truman Show-style video series to highlight the dire consequences of falling for the world’s biggest polluters’ promises to “offset” their carbon emissions, hoping to inspire people to force the powers-that-be to take real climate action. Big polluters keep promising to take climate action, but continue polluting.

Stills from the Dangerous Lies video series which exposes the consequences of carbon offsets which polluters keep lobbying for
Stills from the Dangerous Lies video series which exposes the consequences of carbon offsets which polluters keep lobbying for. © Studio Birthplace

The videos were first screened publicly as a protest against the weak outcome of the G20 Summit held in Rome, Italy, prior to COP26. Greenpeace activists demanded a faster and more ambitious action plan in response to the climate emergency and COVID-19. But, since industry and politicians alike continue to push offsetting as an alternative to real emissions cuts, because it is convenient for them, we released the short films globally in the weeks that followed to boost public pressure for our leaders to make the right choices.  

Nations of the world pledged in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement to collectively achieve net zero carbon emissions globally by 2050. Climate scientists are clear: to avoid climate catastrophe, we need real emissions cuts to halve global emissions by 2030 and to hit net zero — that is, a balance of greenhouse gas emissions and of carbon uptake — by mid-century on our way to negative emissions. 

However, the term net zero is also being exploited by governments and corporations who are using it as a smokescreen to keep polluting, via a loophole called “carbon offset credits”. Simply put, it is greenwashing, which makes keeping global heating below 1.5ºC more challenging.

It’s a “pollute now, pay later” scam — a bookkeeping trick  — which we will all pay the price for unless governments take drastic, immediate and consistent action in reducing global emissions. But, despite the growing evidence against these greenwash scams, decision-makers at COP26 have included new text to the Article 6 Paris Agreement rulebook which gives the go ahead to entrenching carbon offsetting. This boosts the offsets scam with the creation of new loopholes for polluters, undermining climate action and threatening Indigenous Peoples and the biodiversity we all depend on.

Much work still needs to be done to stop the greenwashing, cheating and loopholes giving big emitters and corporations a pass. Here is a look at what the future holds for us if corporations and their government lap dogs continue on this trajectory…

Time to give a flying f**k 

So, the aviation industry wants to double air traffic by 2037 and halve their carbon emissions by 2050? That doesn’t sound right, does it? I’m no mathematician and even I can tell that something doesn’t quite add up with that proposition. 

The most recent video in the series focuses on how airlines are pushing the illusion that you can fly carbon neutral — or “net zero” — by paying a little extra on your ticket to compensate for the carbon emitted by your flight. However, these “carbon offset” or compensation schemes are highly problematic… 

One of such schemes works by taking an untouched forest and “protecting it” from deforestation. It assumes that because these forests are not cut down, that will “compensate” for the carbon emitted by your flight. But who’s to say for sure that these forests would have been cut down? And, if we are still experiencing global heating at this rate WITH the amount of forest we have left, surely we need greater measures in place? 

The climate benefits of these schemes are often exaggerated and impossible to verify. Many are short-lived — for example, the timber from a new tree plantation is harvested; or destroyed by disease or fire. Therefore the carbon savings claimed by airlines is not guaranteed in the long term. Some of these schemes even reportedly lead to land grabbing and the displacement of local communities, further worsening the plight of those already bearing the brunt of the climate crisis (Most Affect People and Areas or MAPA). 

A Total disaster in Congo Basin rainforest 

The second video in the series, however, was a little closer to home for me. Set in the Congo Basin, this video zoomed in on the threat that Total’s greenwashing poses to our greatest resource in countering climate change as Africans: the world’s largest tropical peatland, which stores an equivalent of 20 years of the US’s fossil fuel emissions

French oil company TotalEnergies recently bought rights permitting future oil drilling in pristine peatland forest of the Republic of Congo. It claims it can compensate for the damage caused by its oil drilling by planting a 40,000 hectare tree farm elsewhere in the country, which it says can soak up millions of tonnes of its climate pollution — and it plans to use trees that reportedly aren’t native to the natural savannah ecosystem in their offsetting project.

The oil giant claims it is committed to a clean energy future, and has even rebranded itself to appear so. But, it’s all just greenwashing. In fact, when Greenpeace International released its video shining light on Total’s shameless scam, Total quickly responded by posting about its disastrous plan on Twitter — trying to control the narrative instead of acknowledging or addressing the concerns raised. 

As history has shown, oil drilling poses a massive threat to our biodiversity and other natural resources — one just has to look at the devastation multinational oil companies have caused in the Niger Delta. Total’s oil addiction threatens the homes, livelihoods and land rights of Indigenous Peoples, as well as what has become a vital wildlife refuge for lowland gorillas.

JBS Will Not ‘Meat’ Real Targets 

In the video that kicked off the series, what starts out as a cute father-daughter exchange quickly turns into a nightmare reality check — where the “farm-to-table” suburban dream isn’t as rosy as it is made out to be. Instead, they stumble upon a dark, disturbing world of deceit. 

The first video in the series shines the spotlight on JBS: the biggest meat company in the world! We are all aware of the contribution the meat and dairy industry makes toward the climate crisis; and the industry’s lobby to boost global meat consumption regardless. Yet, JBS wants to convince the world that it is part of the climate solution, by promising a “net zero”, “carbon neutral” “bright future” by 2040.

While methane from cattle is hands-down the fundamental source of JBS’s climate impact — and its global emissions are estimated to be about half those of oil giants Shell or British Petroleum (BP) — its grand “net-zero” plan does not explicitly tackle this! Greenpeace International is of the opinion that their plan allows it to continue fuelling the destruction of the Amazon and other vital habitats for years to come.

JBS’s public relations is a dangerous distraction! And, as if its greenwashing weren’t unethical enough, JBS buys cattle from ranchers that have illegally occupied Indigenous Peoples’ lands, cleared forests and set fires that release millions of tonnes of climate wrecking pollution.

#RealZero: the REAL solution 

The reality is that these schemes may have little to no positive climate impact and are a dangerous diversion from the real solutions. The world needs to halve emissions over the next decade, so oil must stay in the ground, the meat and dairy industry needs to seriously downscale, and we definitely need to reduce flights globally and cut emissions at their source.

That is #realzero

The only way out of the climate crisis is to get to real zero — that is, achieving net zero emissions without false solutions such as offsetting and greenwashing. Real zero means reducing emissions as close to zero as possible before they are put into the atmosphere in addition to protecting biodiversity, while upholding community and Indigenous land rights. It means full speed ahead to a radical transformation of our food systems based on ecological farming and healthy plant-rich diets as well as changing our energy, and transport systems to rely on 100% renewable sources.

Real zero means an end to fossil fuel burning and the phasing out of industrial meat. Real zero means no to offsetting scams.