The Accounting Trick That Could Wreck the Planet

The Accounting Trick That Could Wreck the Planet
Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP, Getty Images

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND — Part of the agreement being hammered out at United Nations talks as they stretch into their (in theory) last day could let rich countries get away with continuing to pollute by using a bit of tricky maths to justify it under the Paris Agreement. Welcome to one of the most confusing — and important — components of international climate policy.

The portion of the agreement, known cryptically as Article 6, is one of those things that is a huge headache due to how complicated it is even by the UN’s own impenetrable standards. (Every time I mention it to someone here in Glasgow, they roll their eyes and groan.) At its very simplest, Article 6 has to do with carbon markets and carbon offsets. These are the schemes that allow countries to pay for projects that take carbon out of the atmosphere — planting trees, for instance, or funding a renewable energy project — in order to get what amounts to a get-out-of-jail-free card to keep up pollution at home.

In theory, the maths around carbon markets should work. But in practice, it often ends up being a huge problem, due in large part to what’s known as double-counting. That’s when two separate entities claim the same offset in their calculations — with one country often using that offset to justify burning more fossil fuels.

“So a country like, say, Norway says, ‘OK, we want to pay for some forest protection in Brazil that we calculate will make up for oil [use] in some way,’” Louisa Casson, a senior campaigner for Greenpeace, explained. “That’s based on a lot of assumptions — that maths is often based on crystal ball gazing. Who’s gonna count that forest? Brazil’s got its own emissions reduction plan, its own national climate plan. There is all sorts of issues around trickery. And that’s why often offsetting is a bit of a scam.”

It’s this double-counting that makes Article 6 a greenwashing threat that could actually do serious harm to the world’s efforts to cut down on emissions. The fuzzy maths is basically a life-and-death concern to millions counting on a climate that doesn’t overheat any further.

“There are a lot of countries and a lot of civil society [members] that are very worried that this is a massive loophole and could open up a massive get-out clause,” Classon said. “For countries that don’t really want to reduce their emissions, this provides them a way to say, ‘we’re just going to do this other thing.’ We know that to keep [the global average temperature rise] below 1.5 [degrees Celsius], we have to reduce our emissions. We have to get off fossil fuels. It’s not going to be through greenwashing and scams like offsets.”

Casson and I spoke about Article 6 on Thursday morning; on Thursday evening, activists sounded the alarm that negotiators had produced a new version of the text. This version has some good items, but a lot of worrisome implications, including provisions that would seem to give the green light to double-counting. This could actually blow the world’s carbon budget way past the 1.5-degree-Celsius goal set by the UN, a level of heating that’s crucial to the continued existence of small island nations. This version, Casson said when I caught up with her over WhatsApp on Friday, could allow “offset credits that are especially dodgy and have years of problems.”

Usually, at international climate meetings, the goal is for everyone to get to an agreement to produce a text. But in this case, activists and countries opposed to carbon markets are so worried about the implications of allowing bad rules to become official in Article 6 that they say no deal is preferable to a bad one. In general, keeping the rules vague is better than permanently opening the door for polluters to wreck the planet.

Unfortunately, Casson said over WhatsApp, the UK and other big polluters, including the U.S., are pushing hard to get a rule finalised in Glasgow. “Writing bad rules would lock in problems for years — and undermine efforts to close the gap to 1.5C,” she wrote.

Regardless of what happens in Glasgow, Casson said Thursday that the public is becoming more aware of the types of issues Article 6 raises thanks to how many companies have started promising greener products and services. And, she said, more public attention on this arcane process is a good thing.

“More and more companies are making net zero pledges, they’re saying, ‘hey, we’re gonna sell you carbon neutral bacon, or you can fly carbon neutral’ — there’s growing scepticism,” she said. “And we’re seeing much more of a public conversation because people are really concerned. They want to be doing the right thing on climate change. They’re starting to question this idea of offsetting.”