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Do carbon offsets hide more than they reveal about some of the largest global polluters?

Carbon offsets are often hailed as a saviour for the planet. But are they actually getting to the root of the problem?

Carbon credits or offsets work by offering regulated polluters the opportunity to increase their own emissions if they subsidise equivalent emission reductions in unregulated markets.

However, currently there are very few jurisdictions that have a requirement for some of the worst polluters to actually cut their emissions at the sites where they are released into the atmosphere. Instead, companies can buy carbon credits or offsets to meet their obligations.

In Australia for example, under new changes from the government, the potential to set the largest polluters on a pathway to reduce their emissions and improve their environmental footprint is to be applauded.

The Safeguard Mechanism is a legacy policy from a former Coalition government that is aimed at reducing emissions from emissions-intensive industries, which have been growing dramatically in Australia. It’s focused on large projects across a range of industries, such as manufacturing, coal mining and gas processing

However, in looking at the details of the plan, it seems incredible that there will be no limit to the number of offsets a company can use.

Because the Safeguard Mechanism is dominated by the gas and coal industries – which if anything are planning on increasing emissions – the risk is that the reformed Safeguard Mechanism will allow business as usual by big emitters and drive unprecedented demand for carbon offsets.

Buying carbon credits year after year means that a business is not making the changes they need to legitimately help decarbonise the economy.

The carbon in coal, gas and oil has been safely stored underground for extraordinary lengths of time. But when trees take carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere, they may only store it for a short period.

Avoiding the worst of climate change means stopping the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. Offsets will not save us.

If carbon credits have no integrity and are used to justify emissions by claiming to offset them, the result is a net increase in emissions.

And this is why carbon credits, or offsets, are a last resort and should not be relied upon to cut emissions at their source.