What is carbon neutrality?


Michigan’s new plan for climate change, the MI Healthy Climate Plan, is now in draft form and open for public comment. The plan aims to achieve Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s 2020 executive order, which directs state departments to reach “economy-wide carbon neutrality” in Michigan by 2050. The plan also aims to “implement policies that advance the goals of the Paris Agreement, aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emission by at least 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.” The council operates under the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE).

But what exactly is carbon neutrality?

The New Oxford American Dictionary proclaimed the term carbon neutrality its word of the year 2006, defining it as “making no net release of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, especially through offsetting emissions by planting trees.”

By this definition, anything can be carbon neutral – even a coal-fired power plant – so long as it somehow also removes the same amount of carbon dioxide it places into the atmosphere. One trend is for events like conferences and concerts to proclaim themselves carbon-neutral by following guidance like this BP’s guide to “Make your event carbon neutral.” Strategies include first calculating an event’s “carbon footprint” – the amount of carbon it generates (via travel, catering, energy use, etc.). The next step is to explore ways to reduce that footprint (digitize event brochures, minimize food waste, etc.) and then divine tactics to “offset” the remaining carbon footprint. (BP sells handy-dandy “carbon credits” to meet that requirement.)

The concept has generated an industry of green event consultants to help event planners reduce events’ carbon emissions and help organizers procure offsets.

But what is an offset? It’s a project that reduces carbon emissions or removes (sequesters) it from the environment – like planting forests, building renewable energy, or otherwise storing carbon. Carbon-intensive industries like aviation and manufacturing like this because it ostensibly allows them to continue operating – and emitting carbon – so long as they pay someone else not to do it.

Anyone can purchase carbon offsets through carbon credit market brokers who claim to do these things – whether it's planting forests, building renewable energy, or capturing landfill gas. There's no fixed price for carbon and few standards; buyers can evaluate risk through auditors or standards groups. Carbon offset/credits markets have come under fire for not living up to their promises; for example, in 2019, a ProPublica investigation found that reforestation carbon credits schemes “hadn’t offset the amount of pollution they were supposed to, or they had brought gains that were quickly reversed.”

Some experts say carbon credit markets need reforming – arguing that projects representing such credits should be less than 10 years old, offer additional benefit, not be double-counted, be permanent, and avoid “leakage” – driving polluters to pollute elsewhere.

Environmentalists have criticized carbon credit markets as “greenwashing,” arguing that industry should focus first on eliminating emissions. According to the Indigenous Environmental Network and Indigenous Climate Action, say such offsets are "a false solution that… gives polluters an excuse to continue polluting," according to the Indigenous Environmental Network and Indigenous Climate Action.

But carbon offsetting is likely to be part of the global response to climate change in the foreseeable future. To work, offsets will need to be carefully monitored and rely on actual carbon removal – not reduction – which may include sucking carbon out of the air via the nascent technology of direct air capture, something some say is an exercise in futility because of the amount of power it requires to operate.

Meanwhile, the 2021 COP 26 conference ended with proposing a U.N. standard to allow countries to start trading in carbon markets. The U.S. and European Union said they would not rely on an international carbon credit market.

So, where does this leave Michigan? Read our next installment in this two-part series on climate neutrality and offsets.

What questions do you have about the environment and climate change in Michigan? Please let us know by reaching out to me at nina@planetdetroit.org. NOTE: Please don't reply directly to this email, it will go into a digital netherworld.


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