Do we have a duty to clean up our climate pollution?

Power station and houses in Ratcliffe-on-Soar
Ratcliffe-on-Soar Power Station (c) CC BY-SA 2.0

Emily Lewis-Brown, Research Postgraduate on the Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet Doctoral Training Partnership, considers why the ‘polluter pays principle’ could be applied in full to carbon emissions. Her latest paper, published in Climate Policy, explores how universities approach carbon offsetting and management.

If carbon dioxide were purple and pungent, we would deal with it differently

When stricken tankers spew crude oil into the sea, polluting nesting sites and fishing grounds, the flow of oil into the sea is reduced, contained and removed from the sea, animals and habitats as far as possible. Local people, such as fishers, are then compensated for lost earnings. Equally, routine discharges to of wastes, such as sewage, into the environment are regulated, and companies must reduce and remediate their impacts on the environment.

In the context of action to tackle climate change, carbon offsetting has emerged as a mechanism by which organisations and individuals may pay to try to mitigate the impacts of their carbon pollution. Carbon offsets fund projects that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, reduce emissions through switching to renewable energy, or support vulnerable communities by funding sustainable development. But they have also divided opinion.

Man planting crop seeds in Muara Tae Village
Petrus Asuy sow forest crops seed in the intact forest of Muara Tae Village as part of community reforestation (c) CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Carbon offset conundrums

Concerns remain about whether carbon offsets deliver what they claim – is a tonne of carbon produced in one part of the world actually balanced out if a tonne of carbon is absorbed or avoided elsewhere? In addition to these valid concerns around the delivery of offset projects, there are also divergent opinions on the fundamental principles of offsetting.

Some authors claim that paying for carbon offsets increases the motivation to reduce emissions whilst simultaneously funding nature conservation and restoration projects or sustainable energy projects. These incentives can further compensate people affected by climate change and help them adapt to climate change impacts. While other authors claim that buying offsets leads people or organisations to feel a ‘moral licence to pollute’ which would diminish their efforts to reduce their emissions. The evidence-base to back up such concerns has so far been lacking – and what any good debate needs is data!  

How do universities use carbon offsets?

To investigate whether offsets may create a ‘moral licence to pollute’ or not, for our new publication in Climate Policy, my colleagues and I tested whether British and American universities that buy carbon offsets differ in their carbon management approaches and emissions compared to universities that do not offset their emissions. Our data showed that universities buying carbon offsets adopted a greater number of other carbon management practices, such as reducing energy consumption in their buildings, and reduced their carbon emissions by as much or more than those who did not buy carbon offsets. Furthermore, those in charge of buying carbon offsets (typically university sustainability or energy managers) were motivated to help biodiversity and to improve the lives of people affected by climate change. These actions are in line with the polluter pays principle.

Most universities studied prioritised emissions reductions from their own activities over offsets. As such, our data didn’t support the idea that use of offsets leads to a ‘moral licence to pollute’. In contrast, it provided evidence of polluters paying to try and compensate for their pollution. However, the university sector is more likely than most to be conscious of concerns such as the ‘moral licence to pollute’, so our findings may not be generalisable to other sectors. Whether other organisations and businesses use offsets in a similar way to the university sector is an important question that requires further investigation.

Imperial college London campus
Imperial College London Abdus Salam Library (c) Thomas Angus, Imperial College London.

Climate mitigation must be more than reducing greenhouse gas emissions

A key element of pollution control and environmental protection is mitigation. In climate circles, climate mitigation generally refers to emissions reductions – but to avoid the worst climate change impacts, mitigation must be more than just the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. In environmental impact assessment policy and practice, mitigation has 5 steps in the following hierarchy: avoid, minimise, rectify, compensate, enhance. The first steps, avoiding and minimising pollution, are of primary importance, followed by measures such as cleaning up pollution and compensating those impacted. The last three steps of a mitigation hierarchy are where carbon offsets can help remediate some of the damage done to people and the environment. To ensure mitigation measures are prioritised in this order in environmental management, requirements to reduce pollution and its impacts to as low as reasonably practicable (ALARP) are well established – but again, they are lacking in climate mitigation.

Raising the standards

Principles to ensure carbon offsets are only used for emissions that cannot be avoided have been developed. It’s essential that these principles are built-upon with clear guidelines on how to apply the polluter pays principle, and how to reduce emissions to as low as reasonably practicable within the full mitigation hierarchy. Where offsets are used, they must be of the highest quality, such as those accredited by the International Carbon Reduction and Offsetting Accreditation (ICROA).

To learn more about how the universities we studied managed their carbon emissions, and our key policy insights for carbon management, read our research paper.

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