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Neoliberal Yikes

While Davos Attendees Boast About Carbon Offsets, a Report Reveals That Carbon Offsets Don’t Work

An awkward week at the World Economic Forum!

John Kerry looks up, smiling, while paging through a binder.
Presidential envoy for climate John Kerry is greeted by a participant prior to a session during the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos on January 17.

The annual Alpine confab for heads of state, titans of industry, and people who give TED talks is happening this week. And with perfect timing, we’ve been treated to a string of reports showing that the World Economic Forum’s attendees in Davos are a lot less competent than the conspiracy theorists give them credit for. 

Amid rising public concern over the climate and biodiversity loss crises, the Davos set in recent years has, unsurprisingly, fixated on so-called “solutions” that allows for its corporate funders to continue business as usual. For example, they’ve doubled down on a particular brand of forest conservation. The Forum bills its initiative as a “global movement to conserve, restore and grow 1 trillion trees by 2030,” fleshed out by a series of corporate pledges. Several of the companies signed on say they will contribute to that goal and their own net-zero commitments by purchasing carbon offset credits. Theoretically, such credits are generated when a tract of threatened land is designated for a conservation project. The number of credits projects can generate and sell corresponds to the emissions it will reduce, whether by preserving forests that would otherwise be razed or by planting and sustaining additional trees. Companies can then buy those credits to offset their own emissions, to cancel out a new oil well, for instance. Third-party firms are meant to verify that those credits actually reduce emissions.

But on Wednesday, a nine-month investigation by The Guardian, produced with Die Zeit and non-profit investigative outlet Source Material, revealed that these forest carbon offsets mostly don’t work. At least 90 percent of rain forest offset credits approved by D.C.-based company Verra—the world’s leading verifier of carbon credits, which several corporate pledge-takers say they rely on—are worthless or worse, this report finds. Companies have purchase so-called “ghost credits” in lieu of cutting emissions themselves. Verra—which is participating in multiple events at Davos this weekend—strongly disputes the claims. 

Another popular climate “solution” being touted in the Alps this weekend are more novel forms of carbon dioxide removal, using machines—as opposed to trees and other natural carbon sinks—to capture carbon dioxide from industrial processes or the atmosphere. Speaking at a panel in Switzerland on Wednesday, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry touted carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) as a transformative solution, noting he had found hope in having met “a bunch of young entrepreneurs who are doing amazing things in start-ups.” Occidental Petroleum CEO Vicki Hollub was similarly bullish about CCUS on another panel, reiterating her company’s goal to become a “carbon-management company” and pledging to build 135 direct air capture facilities with the support of new subsidies provided by the Inflation Reduction Act. “If we cannot reduce the CO2 that’s already in the atmosphere we have a real problem,” Hollub said. “This has to happen and it has to happen in a big way.”

But on Thursday, a report dropped pouring cold water on this approach as well: Researchers in several countries found that carbon removal technologies are still a long way off from being able to suck up the vast amounts of emissions that corporate net-zero plans are banking on. Novel methods like direct air capture today account for just 0.1 percent of the 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere, itself a small fraction of the roughly 37 billion tons of carbon dioxide emitted worldwide last year. While nearly every climate scenario relies on some amount of novel carbon dioxide removal to limit warming to 2 or 1.5 degrees Celsius, researchers found such methods would need to increase 30-fold by 2030 to meet those targets, and 1,300-fold by mid-century. 

Running through both these stories of so-called quick fixes—and reports debunking the idea that these technologies are either quick or a fix—is the same basic delusion about what drastically reducing emissions will entail. The vision presented at Davos is of a win-win for business and the planet, wherein the core challenge of decarbonization is in making it a profitable thing for corporations to invest in. Rather than moving to constrain pollution, government’s role by this account is to shoulder the risk of new technologies and transform them into revenue generators, where investors reap the rewards: “Revenue producing transportation, for instance. You pay for transportation. Water treatment facilities. You pay for the water in certain places,” he said by way of example. “Like it or not we must find a way to create the incentives that bring the private sector to the table,” Kerry added. “I believe the private sector is ultimately going to do this.”

The reports released this week don’t inspire much confidence on that front. But Kerry’s co-panelists already knew that. Speaking alongside Kerry was Helena Gualinga, a 20-year old indigenous climate activist from the Kichwa Sarayaku community in the Ecuadorian Amazon. “Putting business first is exactly what has led us to the point where we are at right now,” she said, reacting to Kerry’s comments. “In this building we have people who are enabling those crimes against humanity and against planet…let’s not get confused here. We’re talking about not expanding on fossil fuels,” she said. “We don’t want any new oil wells. We don’t want any new coal mines,” she added, or “any new fossil fuel development.” At the end of the panel, Gualinga directly asked Kerry and Germany’s climate envoy, Jennifer Morgan, also on the panel, if they would commit to ending new fossil fuel exploration. 

“I love and respect your passion and your voice is really critical in this,” Kerry said,  noting that he had just met with “your environment minister,” newly-appointed Brazilian environment minister Marina Silva, “about the forest.” Kerry seemed to erroneously believe Gualinga was from Brazil. Politely, Gualinga chimed in as he continued talking about the Rainforest Protection Pact: “Make sure to include Ecuador also, my country.” 

Neither Kerry nor Morgan answered the question. But perhaps the answer was implicit in another story from this week: On Sunday, Kerry told reporters he supported the United Arab Emirates’ decision to choose an oil executive to preside over this year’s UN climate talks in Dubai.