In 1969, to prepare for the Diablo Nuclear Power Plant, PGE scraped the vegetation off a hillside, leaving a vast, brown scar. To fix this, PGE painted the hillside green. Since then, the term “greenwashing” has referred to attempts to obscure environmental degradation by making the perpetrator’s actions look “green.”
Today in Santa Cruz, the draft environmental impact report for the proposed desalination plant claims that the energy-guzzling plant will be “net carbon neutral” thanks to two kinds of greenhouse gas offsets: (1) local offsets, such as solar panels to generate electricity, and (2) carbon offsets that we would purchase on the carbon market.
But just as “you can’t spend the same dollar twice,” neither can we use the same energy strategy both to offset the desal plant’s greenhouse gas production and to reduce our local greenhouse gas production, as our Climate Action Plan requires. There’s no getting around the fact that using renewable energy to desalinate water instead of using it to reduce our PGE dependency without a desal plant would cause more fossil-fuel burning and more greenhouse gasses.
Such local offset strategies account for less than 10 percent of the draft EIR’s plan for making the desal plant “net carbon neutral.” Usually, when people speak of “carbon offsets” they are referring to carbon-reduction projects that are bought elsewhere to compensate for their own excessive energy use. Purchasing such projects would account for over 90 percent of the plan to make the desal plant “carbon neutral.”
In theory, carbon offsets work like this: Since there’s only one atmosphere, it doesn’t matter whether the greenhouse gas reduction happens in California or in China. So if Santa Cruz buys a desal plant that will generate more greenhouse gasses locally via PGE’s fossil-fuel sources, the city can offset that increase by paying people anywhere on the planet to decrease their greenhouse gas output there.
Though carbon offsets may work on the balance sheets, they do not always work on the ground, where people and ecosystems live. They are especially problematic when bought in Third World countries, far from the purchaser’s sight. The carbon balance sheets don’t reflect the “externalities” when people are forced off their land, their economies have been disrupted, or their diverse ecosystems have been ripped out and the soil sprayed with herbicides to make way for tree monocrops, often of invasive species.
Whether a project is “additional” — in effect, would not have happened without the offset — can be hard to verify. For example, if the Nature Conservancy sells its promise not to log X number of trees as a carbon offset, how can we know whether they would have logged them otherwise? If projects are not additional, permanent greenhouse gas reductions, the purchaser’s money is being wasted while their own polluting adds greenhouse gasses to the air.
Buying carbon offsets helps the purchaser feel better about their excessive energy use, but even when offsets are additional and permanent, the polluter has simply paid to continue polluting. If the City buys desal, we’ll pay not only for the electricity to run it, but also for the greenwash to obscure our greenhouse gas production for as long as the plant operates.
Jude Todd lives in Santa Cruz.