What John Oliver Misses About Carbon Offsets

By Matthew Carpenter-Arévalo

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In a recent episode of Last Week Tonight, the weekly half-hour HBO show designed to expose fraud and injustice with a side dish of humor, the comedian John Oliver takes on the topic of carbon offsets. In his exposé, he gets many of the details right and correctly calls out many bad actors in the space. Unfortunately, he misses the point of carbon offsets entirely. Allow me to explain.

First, I should clarify that I am not a huge John Oliver fan, and that obviously influences my perspective.

When I lived in the UK and long before he made his US breakthrough on the Daily Show, I used to relish John Oliver’s podcast The Bugle. Throughout the first few seasons of Last Week Tonight, I never missed an episode, but then I picked up on a few patterns of behavior that I couldn’t stop seeing, and eventually, I tuned out.

John Oliver.

First, like Fox News’s opinion programs, John Oliver’s show traffics in anger and is designed to incite outrage, rather than action. Without wanting to draw a moral equivalence between the two, what I will say is that both employ the same tactic, which is to keep their audience watching by ensuring they’re constantly at a boiling point.

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Even though Oliver sets out on every episode to take deep dives on often overlooked but relevant topics, I don’t believe the show’s goal is to educate people or have them make up their own minds on complex issues. Instead, his goal is to inflame. Personally, I find it tiring to be angry all the time. Also, if we want to use our brains to solve problems, we must step back from rage and seek to understand.

Second, as part of his act, John Oliver inexplicably picks on strangers for being different in a way that reminds me of high school bullies. Often randomly, John finds someone loosely related to the topic he’s exploring and then makes fun of them for looking, sounding, or acting different.

I suspect Oliver thinks he’s exempt from responsibility for his random attacks because he also practices a form of self-deprecating humor, or that he believes that his moral stance gives him license to unleash on the individuals who are positioned on the other side of an issue he’s exploring, but I disagree.

Maybe because he operates from a progressive position he’s mostly escaped criticism for his behavior, with the exception being Adam Driver, the actor who called Oliver out for his ongoing and inexplicable bit about Driver’s looks. Adam Driver has enough media power to call Oliver out for his behavior; most of Oliver’s targets do not. He punches down a lot.

Finally, Last Week Tonight is highly formulaic. As a result, the show’s writers are tasked with making different content fit the same narrative structure week in and week out, rather than finding the narrative in the content. “Here’s this evil thing you’re not paying attention to that is thriving because of your lack of concern” is the same storyline the show re-visits in each episode.

Despite presenting his shows as deep dives into a topic, Oliver’s objective is often the opposite: rather than inform, the show seeks to eliminate nuance and complexity.

Rather than lifting people up, John Oliver’s show attempts to pull people down to a single, cynical and pessimistic worldview. Personally, I struggle with this type of groupthink in which we all must suspend critical thinking in order to conform to a political worldview, even when it comes from people I largely agree with on important issues.

So when John Oliver takes on carbon offsets, I cringe because a.) I know that his purpose is to provide the veil of an informed opinion on a topic that is truly far too complex to summarize in twenty minutes and b.) a lot of his talking points are recycled bits that have already been widely publicized and debated.

In addition, the carbon removal industry is far from self-critical: indeed, I don’t know any industry where the conversation around first principles is more vibrant and key concepts are constantly debated.

To this point, people are putting their money where their mouth is: billions are being poured into early-stage startups trying to solve many of the issues John Oliver alludes to in the hopes of creating highly functional carbon markets.

Anyone overcome with climate dread that delves deep into carbon markets can only walk away impressed by the quality of the individuals and the quality of the work currently focused on helping solve climate change through carbon offsets.

Nonetheless, John Oliver would have us believe that the presence of problems derived from both bad actors and complexity means we should dismiss carbon offsets out of hand. I disagree. If we all operated on that assumption, the world would never build anything new worthwhile.

First, John Oliver’s thesis is built around the notion that, as he says, “we cannot offset our way out of climate change.” The line, delivered with scolding conviction, is absolutely correct. The problem for Oliver is that a grand total of zero individuals are out arguing that we can offset our way out of climate change. Oliver’s takedown of the industry is based on an argument no one is actively sustaining.

As I detailed in a recent post, any company that commits to getting to net zero has different activities they can undertake to reduce their carbon footprint. Emissions are classified as Scope 1, Scope 2, and Scope 3. As a reminder:

Scope 1 emissions come directly from the company’s operations, like keeping the lights on and producing things.

Scope 2 emissions come from the secondary effects of their operations, say the emissions coming from providers delivering goods to a warehouse, etc.

Scope 3 emissions are everything else that happens as a result of a company producing something. When I think of scope 3, I often think of plastic floating in the great pacific garbage patch; Scope 3 is a similar tertiary effect that is difficult for the company to control

Any company that takes seriously its commitment to reducing emissions has a plan to eliminate as many emissions as possible through scope 1 and scope 2 reductions, while scope 3 is much more difficult to eliminate because they often fall beyond the company’s control.

Offsets are seen as a temporary solution for scope 1 and scope 2 emissions and an adequate activity to address scope 3.

For example, an Airline can only do so much before coming up against the fact that we don’t yet have a suitable replacement for jet fuel, nor can they force their passengers to ride to the airport in electric vehicles.

The most important point to understand here is that, despite what John Oliver portrays, no one is arguing that offsets can, on their own, represent a strategy to compensate for a company’s entire carbon footprint. Offsets have always been and always will be a complimentary activity.

Second, John Oliver’s team builds an argument against carbon offsets by pointing to episodes of fraud that are absolutely real. The nuance missing from their argument, however, is the difference between “this happened one time” and “this happens all the time”.

The Nature Conservancy, for example, has been widely criticized for creating carbon credits from protected forests. The American Carbon Registry has been rightly criticized for vouching for those carbon credits. The entire industry learned from the example set by the Nature Conservancy, and carbon credit buyers are now demanding more transparency from sellers in order to avoid being associated with activities that might look like greenwashing.

The internet can be used for nefarious purposes, but no one suggests shutting it down because illegal and immoral activity takes place there. Rather, we build tools to make it harder for bad actors to thrive online. The carbon offset industry is no different.

Third, John Oliver and his team employ a fair amount of intellectual dishonesty at worst or a lack of investigative rigor at best to build their argument.

For example, a lot of people point to carbon credits generated from renewable energy projects as problematic because renewable energy doesn’t require funding from carbon credits in order to exist, thus putting into doubt the question of “additionality”.

Such a statement is true today because renewable energy is often cheaper than fossil fuel, but that development is relatively recent. 10 years ago a renewable energy project likely didn’t get off the ground because the startup costs were too high. Subsidies were needed.

As such, when we discuss carbon credits derived from renewable energy projects, we have to ask when the credits were emitted. If the credits were emitted ten years ago, they likely did meet the definition of additionality, even if they wouldn’t today.

In 2022, most registries won’t allow for credits from renewables because their standards have been updated to reflect the changing economic reality. What is true is that carbon credits were likely important to help renewables achieve the inflection point of economies of scale in order to today compete on price.

Finally, a major assumption in John Oliver’s argument is that corporations are bad and always will be bad actors when it comes to climate change. His team takes aim at Disney in particular because it’s easy to make pre-disposed individuals despise a corporate behemoth a little bit more than they already do.

The problem with the anti-corporate bias is that it obscures a complicated topic. First, offsets are used primarily by companies participating in the voluntary carbon market, with the keyword being voluntary.

While there are no doubt some companies that seek to earn marketing points with their audiences by waving a green flag, the truth is that achieving a net-zero goal is very hard and requires a lot of investment and mobilization. Those who try to fake it will quickly and easily be called.

Disney happens to be a company that is attempting to be a good corporate citizen, but in John Oliver’s world, there’s no room for good corporate citizens. I can imagine the executives at Disney seeing the piece and thinking, “we’re damned if we do, we’re damned if we don’t.”

Because companies, especially in the US outside of California, are not required to meet any carbon reduction goals, it would be easy to do nothing. Instead, many of them are coming to the table wanting to engage, and carbon offsets are one component of a comprehensive, multi-dimensional emissions reduction strategy.

As I’ve pointed out in other posts, part of what makes carbon offsetting so complicated is that natural systems like forests are easy to scale and hard to measure, whereas technology such as direct carbon capture is easy to measure but hard to scale.

In an ideal world, companies would directly pull from the air all the emissions their activities are responsible for. Because that’s not yet feasible, as a planet we’d do well to find a way to solve the measurement problem and take advantage of the carbon sequestration capacity of natural systems.

What’s more, the current model for protecting natural systems like forests is based entirely on charity through conservation. Charity’s total ability to harness capital for the sake of conservation is a drop in the bucket compared to the capital the agricultural industry can harness in order to cut trees down.

Developing a business model that allows landowners to conserve forests, switch to regenerative agricultural practices, restore wetlands that are used by countless species to feed and reproduce, etc., is a net benefit to the world, not just to corporate executives.

In his piece, John Oliver and his team state with conviction that “we can’t offset our way out of climate change,” while never having to provide any ideas as to how we do avoid the worst consequences of climate change.

Is John Oliver aware of what he’s defending when he says the world would be better off without carbon offsets? What steps would he suggest to fight climate change?

Would John Oliver advocate shutting down the airline industry? Would he recommend making gas-fired engines illegal? Would he propose a series of regulations that would make things more expensive and thus generate more painful inflation for the world’s poor? How would John Oliver create bridge funding to enable farmers to transition from environmentally harmful to environmentally helpful practices? It’s easy to f wag a finger; it’s hard to come to the debate with ideas.

For those of us who work in carbon offsets, we understand the current systems and tools are imperfect, but we believe that highly functional carbon markets are a real, near-term possibility. We’ll have to plow through failure, some fraud, and a lot of other BS to get there. That’s how you build new things.

Carbon offsets may fail. Or, they may allow us to restore nature, preserve biodiversity, fight climate change and earn us the title of worthy and admirable ancestors for future generations. Quantifying a company’s carbon footprint and having that company take responsibility for its externalities is an idea worth exploring.

Failure is not the absence of success; it’s part of it. Carbon markets have had some failures and will have more. That doesn’t mean the concept is failing; it means we’re trying to succeed.

To summarize then, it’s one thing to say “there have been bad actors and bad behavior in the carbon offset space” and it’s another to say “the presence of bad actors means the effort to restore natural systems through a voluntary market should be discarded.”

It’s one thing to argue that “there are numerous challenges to making carbon markets work, including measurement and verification” and it’s another thing to say that “the presence of technological challenges means no effort should be expended.”

It’s one thing to say, “there are still philosophical debates to be had regarding key concepts like additionality” and it’s another thing to say, “the existence of a debate means the industry is a fraud designed to separate well-intentioned consumers from their money.”

It’s one thing to say, “carbon markets must be more closely regulated” and it’s another thing to say, “regulation can either help or hinder the development of a nascent industry; we need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

Though John Oliver and his team are right to call out bad actors, their insistence that carbon offsets as a concept are a scam does more damage than good. There is a lot to criticize in the emerging carbon offset space. There is also a lot to celebrate.

We don’t defeat climate change by making it additional fodder for perpetual and never-ending partisan media. We get there by building and debating in good faith. Personally, I don’t think Last Week Tonight’s coverage of carbon offsets ultimately helps with either of those two tasks.

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My opinions do not in any way, shape, or form represent the opinions of my employer.

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Matthew Carpenter-Arevalo

Matthew Carpenter-Arevalo

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Ecuador/Canada. Working on Carbon Origination. Ex@Google, Ex@Twitter. Founder of @CentricoDigital. Contributor @TechCrunch @TheNextWeb.