A policy tool that allows us to imagine a world in which everything is replaceable, and where there are no limits

by Danika Drury

Sometimes you really need to take a flight. Even though you are all-too aware of the toll that flying exerts on the environment. If only there were a way to make up for that damage, to get along in this economy without doing harm.

This dilemma between environmental and economic necessities is what environmental offsetting attempts to solve. The basic premise behind offsetting is intuitive and appealing: that you can counteract a loss with a gain. Environmental offsetting schemes have been widely adopted by governments and corporations over the last three decades, most commonly in the form of carbon or biodiversity offsets, which seek to counteract carbon emissions and habitat loss, respectively, by investing in environmentally beneficial projects. They operate in many different forms and at different scales, from the little check box that lets you offset the emissions of your flight, to multinational forestry projects funded by mining and oil companies.  Offsetting’s appeal is in its simplicity, allowing us to redress some of the harm done by our activity on the planet without throwing too big a wrench in the economy, but this same simplicity is also its downfall. While offsetting projects can include worthwhile environmental work, the very idea of like-for-like exchange is premised on a logic that falls short in the face of the unique ecosystems and meaningful places that make up the world we live in. This is a world that is much more complicated, dynamic, and alive than what is accounted for by offsetting schemes.  

Lost in translation

A key premise of offsetting is that a net gain can compensate for a local loss. Environmental offset schemes make no demand on corporations to limit their economic activity, instead hoping to balance it out through positive environmental contributions. Offsetting projects usually operate as part of a larger framework that sets a target for acceptable levels of carbon emissions or biodiversity; for instance, cap-and-trade systems, the Paris Agreement targets, or the No Net Loss biodiversity policies that dozens of countries have now adopted. When corporations continue to exceed these limits, offsetting projects provide a way to cancel out this excess. So, if the construction of a condo will result in the disruption of a wetland, the property developer can compensate for this by investing in the improvement or protection of another wetland deemed to be equivalent. If a company’s shipping will result in some 13 million metric tonnes of carbon being emitted, they can invest in forestry or renewable energy projects that are accredited to save an equivalent amount. Companies such as airlines sometimes share this responsibility with individual consumers by providing an option – that familiar check box – to contribute to their offset projects. The idea is to incentivise environmental protection on the part of corporations by making it the route through which they are permitted to continue and even expand their operations. Offsetting is often lauded as a win-win between the economy and the environment. In reality, however, things have been a little more lopsided.

While there is important conservation work being carried out under the auspices of offsetting, the evidence thus far is that by and large these programs are not effective as offsets – that is, they do not cancel out the harmful actions of the companies behind them. Studies of biodiversity offset sites have found that they are not preventing the net loss of biodiversity. Up to 82% have a high probability of long term failure, and that even in cases where offset sites may succeed, time delays were far greater than what was being accounted for. In many cases, offset sites may support biodiversity, but not for the same combinations of species as in the site that was lost to development.

For example, one study of land reclamation under Australia’s No Net Loss policy found that attempting to offset the loss of forests cleared for farming by replanting other sections of the same farm led to some species, such as the eastern brown snake, doing well in the reclaimed sites, while many others such as the stone gecko and the common ringtail possum did not.  Tree-dwelling possums were actually negatively affected by new planting, as they rely on cavities in older trees for nesting sites. To add to the difficulty, researchers found that even reclamation projects where hollowed trees had been preserved could not provide the same homey landscape for the possums and small reptiles because subtle changes in factors like soil salinity and amount of woody debris shaped the development of the new forest. These minute differences changed the way possums, geckos, and their neighbours fed, sheltered, and reproduced. The result was landscapes that, though generally better for biodiversity than no reclamation at all, could not be considered a replacement or adequate compensation for what was lost.

The complex dynamics which are so difficult to control in biodiversity offsetting programs also underlie the carbon sequestration processes measured in many carbon offset programs, which show similar rates of failure. It is forests, rather than trees alone, that sequester carbon and forests are complicated biomes that take time to develop. The impact these sites do have is dependent on processes which take place over decades or even centuries, during which time the effects of the carbon already emitted and the habitat already lost are still felt.

The unexpected outcomes and time delays observed in offset sites demonstrate the difficulties of convincing ecosystems to go along with our plans. Offsetting programs attempt to account for these complexities by calculating a project’s value in the form of carbon and biodiversity credits, which quantify different attributes of a project: tonnes of carbon to be sequestered, the presence or absence of endangered species, and so on. These calculations necessarily simplify ecological processes in order to assign the kind of values that can be quantified, monetised, and transferred from one site to another. However, as the high failure rate of offsets attests, the ecological processes that underlie these values are difficult to control or predict. Ecosystems do not always develop in ways that are linear and uniform. Instead they are often patchy, proceeding in fits and starts and according to timelines well beyond human experience. While this doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to help our environment flourish, it does indicate that we cannot count on nature to behave in the precise ways we would like it to, which makes it extremely risky to trade an existent ecosystem for a hypothetical one.

A house is not a home

Not only are the services and attributes targeted by offsetting schemes difficult to maintain or recreate, they are an inadequate description of what is being lost. Environments are not just collections of species and things. They are places and homes, which are much harder to replace.

For example, the petroleum company Syncrude, operating in the Canadian tar sands, recently purchased $2.4 million in offset credits towards the protection of 1.4 million hectares of boreal forest – making this the largest protected boreal forest on the planet. This helped them secure permission to develop a new mine, a move vehemently opposed by local Chipewyan and Cree First Nations communities. The environmental footprint of the protected boreal forest is calculated to be larger than that of the mine in terms of carbon sequestration as well as conservation impact. As far as offsetting goes, this is considered a Net Positive, a fact that was used rhetorically by Syncrude to legitimise the expansion of their operations and silence critics.

Environments are not just collections of species and things. They are places and homes, which are much harder to replace.

However, the destruction wrought by Syncrude’s industrial activities goes beyond what can be quantified, it forever damages the relationships that both humans and non-humans have to land that has been their home for millennia. As Chipewyan Chief Adam Allan put it: “I remember as a kid, you could drink water from the Athabasca River, you could eat the fish. I remember those days. But now, today, you can’t do it.” Feeling at home is always entangled with a particular place, and the damage done to the Indigenous peoples of Athabasca’s sense of belonging cannot be repaired by protecting another swathe of land elsewhere.  The situation in the Canadian tar sands is not unique. From the Arctic to the South Pacific, Indigenous and other vulnerable communities are losing the landscapes that not only provide them with a means of subsistence but have informed unique cultures and ways of life.

Offsetting not only fails to curb the extractive industrial activity that continually puts communities at risk, it may actually exacerbate the unequal distribution of harm that results. Decisions about what should be saved and what must be sacrificed are often taken out of the hands of the communities most directly affected by them. Instead, agency is concentrated in the very entities putting the environment under threat, which has led to decisions that further entrench class inequalities as well as colonial power dynamics. This can put vulnerable communities at risk not only through the condoned destruction of their environment, but in the attempts to save it. In the global South, conservation offsets funded and managed by corporations and NGOs based in the North often exclude local human communities from the nature to be protected, resulting in evictions, bans, and the criminalisation of activities once considered an essential part of life and culture. While most offsetting programs do include some form of consultation with local communities, foregrounding the voices of those most vulnerable to harm would contradict the basic assumption of offsetting: that a net gain can outweigh a local loss.

From Here to Eternity

Even if we accept the claim that restoration projects could turn these losses into net gains, a quantitative win does not remedy the qualitative losses suffered by local communities—human and non-human—nor does it guarantee a better world to come. Determining what constitutes net gain, what sacrifices are worth making, and who gets a say in the discussion, shapes the kind of world that will be built out of those sacrifices.

By the logic of offsetting, that world need not be very different from the one we currently have. It promises that not only will environmental well-being not conflict with economic growth, but they can support each other to the benefit of all. However, economic growth, conventionally measured by GDP, has thus far not been for the benefit of all. It has come with a host of unequally distributed social and environmental costs and has not translated into overall well-being. Instead, those who live and work in their communities are increasingly put at risk by the costs, while extraordinary wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of a select few.

This is perhaps why offsetting has been such an easy sell to many of the world’s most powerful corporations: it allows them to continue being powerful. As long as the environment can be repaired and replenished, it can continue to be extracted from and profited off of, with no need for hard limits or radical restructuring. We could theoretically continue on like this indefinitely: infinite environmental gain supporting infinite economic growth.

The key word, however, is theoretically. In real life, as evidenced by the widespread failure of offsetting programs to deliver practical results, the environment as we know it cannot thrive indefinitely while at the same time having the energy, materials, and life needed to fuel increasing economic growth extracted from it. It will be, as it has been, damaged beyond what can be repaired in human lifetimes and more and more people will suffer because of that damage. Without significant structural change, the pursuit of net gain will continue to entrench the harm and inequality masked by that growth.

In reality, ecosystems are not made up of building blocks, which can be amalgamated or broken up and transferred at the convenience of those who would profit from it

Only by assuming a neutral, detached view of an environment-in-general does it make sense to speak of trading one ecosystem for another, like switching money between accounts. In reality, ecosystems are not made up of building blocks, which can be amalgamated or broken up and transferred at the convenience of those who would profit from it. Both ecologically and culturally, ecosystems are composed of relationships, between humans and non-humans, living beings and their abiotic surroundings, all rooted in a particular time and place. The loss of these places is not just a loss of services or attributes, it is a loss of the unique perspectives and ways of living that come from being a part of these environments. It is a loss of worlds. Taking seriously the reality of being embedded in these relationships means recognising that there are limits to the kinds of activity we can undertake without causing irreparable harm, no matter how we try to make up for it.

Turning the ship around

Offsetting allows us to imagine a world in which there are no limits. The economic paradigm of eternal growth requires such an environment, one which is always replenishable, never fully exhausted. Like some fabled ghost ship, it can float on forever so long as we keep patching it up. In a way, it is comforting to imagine that whatever harm we do can be repaired. In the face of such vast problems, it is at least something. As one offsetting advocate puts it: “Perfection can be the enemy of delivery. There are a whole bunch of problems with it. … What is the alternative?”

But we are not yet ghosts and we can turn this ship around. Offsetting may be better than nothing, but nothing is not the only alternative. The alternative to offsetting it is to accept that there are limits, and to learn how to flourish within them. This means not presuming that ecosystems will follow our plans. It also means listening first and foremost to the communities who have been pushed beyond their limits by the machinations of extractive capitalism. Learning to live without the myth that we can keep sailing forever may be daunting, but it’s the only way to keep from drowning. In the end, it may not be so bad to live in a world that is more than the sum of its parts.

Further resources

Apostolopoulou, Evangelia. & Adams, William. 2017 ‘Biodiversity offsetting and conservation: reframing nature to save it’, Oryx, 51(1), pp. 23–31.

Goldtooth, Tom. 2014. ‘Stopping the Privatization of Nature’ Bioneers Lecture.

Song, Lisa. 2019. ‘These 4 Arguments Can’t Overcome the Facts About Carbon Offsets for Forest PreservationProPublica.

Robertson, Morgan M. 2006 ‘The Nature That Capital Can See: Science, State, and Market in the Commodification of Ecosystem Services.’ Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 24, pp. 367-387.

Vyawahare, Malavika. 2020. ‘Raze here, save there: Do biodiversity offsets work for people or ecosystems?Mongabay.

Danika Drury is a writer and researcher currently working to combat food poverty in the UK. She’s a graduate of Birkbeck, University of London’s MSc program in Environment & Sustainability and previously studied Philosophy. You can talk to her about eels and sci-fi @DanikaJane.