On Carbon Offsets: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

September 16, 2022

Dear John (Oliver), please don’t be offset

John Oliver is a well-known and well-liked powerhouse in late-night comedy. So we watched his recent episode on carbon offsets (Aug 21 Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Season 9, Episode 21), expecting some harsh truths and good laughs. (And a shareable link to an entertaining, user-friendly explanation of carbon credits. No reason why!)

Despite Oliver being primarily a comedian, the episode was pretty bleak. Here at CO2ign Art, we’re optimistic… but realistic. It’s not that he doesn’t have good points. But his writers either missed or ignored some essential counter-points to feature more humorous (and depressing) information.

Ultimately, we get it. Oh, how we get it: carbon credits (“offsets” as Oliver refers to them) are difficult to make exciting, and there are some crazy projects out there. For example, a company named YepYou will let you pay $17 per year to offset the carbon from your breath. Projects like this are absolute comedy gold, but they don’t do the truth any favors.

For the voluntary carbon market, the legitimacy of carbon offsets is crucial to success – which makes Oliver calling them “bullshit” and claiming that “there aren’t many checks and balances in place to prevent abuse” pretty disappointing!

More importantly – it just isn’t true.

What Are Carbon Credits?

First things first: carbon credits vs carbon offsets – what’s the difference?

A carbon credit is a term used to refer to a unit of CO2- specifically, one metric ton – that is kept or removed from the atmosphere by a project that reduces carbon emissions. Companies, countries, or individuals can purchase carbon credits for various reasons.

A carbon offset is when you use a carbon credit to negate (“offset”) unavoidable CO2 emissions. Oliver explains, “If you emit CO2 into the atmosphere, you can offset it by, say, planting or protecting trees… or building a wind farm to replace a fossil fuel plant.”

These terms often get used interchangeably, but for this article, we’ll use ‘carbon credits’ since CO2ign Art does not use carbon credits to offset any particular emissions.

Each carbon credit comes from a project that will help reduce carbon in the atmosphere. Projects that, without this funding, likely would not exist at all.

Carbon credits operate on a simple idea: Companies unable to reduce their CO2 emissions to the required levels can buy carbon credits equal to the amount of CO2 they need to reduce. Each carbon credit comes from a project that will help reduce carbon in the atmosphere. And, crucially – these are projects that, without this funding, likely would not exist at all.

The Truth Behind the Jokes About Carbon Offsets

Oliver continued to find other funny, goofy, or frivolous-sounding carbon reduction projects as examples, like a 2011 video announcement where My Chemical Romance discusses their plan to use carbon offsets to reduce their international tours’ emissions.

But using this eleven-year-old clip (sorry, millennials, we’re old now) highlights an important point: Much like Gerard Way, the voluntary carbon credit industry doesn’t look the same as it used to. It’s constantly evolving and adapting, and there are several industry mainstays that do things right.

Oliver’s main complaint is that companies use carbon offsets as a “right to pollute.” He cites many questionable carbon offsets, such as the credits purchased to protect Peter Kellogg’s private hunting club, as evidence – and he’s not wrong in that people and groups like that certainly exist. (We’re not fans, either.)

Thankfully, those credits are the exception, not the rule. They’re known as low-quality credits.

But high-quality offsets allow both companies and regular people to make a genuine impact on GHG emissions. Crucially, those offsets get held to a very specific standard.

So, what’s the difference between high-quality and low-quality carbon credits?

Defining Quality Carbon Offsets

According to the Carbon Offset Guide, to be effective, a carbon offset must be able to create a tangible difference: “The world must be at least as well off when you use a carbon offset credit as it would have been if you had reduced your own carbon footprint.”

That’s the base standard for what makes a carbon credit viable. But there’s a difference between a viable offset and a quality offset.

“When people talk about the ‘quality’ of a carbon offset credit,” says COG, “they are referring to the level of confidence one can have that the use of the credit will fulfill this basic principle.”

The difference between high-quality and low-quality carbon offsets is how much you can trust that the project will accomplish what it claims it will

In other words, the difference between high-quality and low-quality carbon offsets is how much you can trust that the project will accomplish what it claims it will. Oliver only shows examples of low-quality carbon offset projects – and we don’t blame him! There are, unfortunately, quite a few, and they’re easy to find. But looping all carbon offset projects into the same boat is not only unfair but poor practice when discussing such a complicated topic, comedy show or not.

As with all industries, there’s a wide range of projects, and many organizations invested in setting and maintaining standards for quality.

One such standard-setter is Verra, founded in 2007. They’re one of the top carbon accounting programs, and where CO2ign Art sources our carbon credits. Unsurprisingly, they also took issue with Oliver’s claims – and it’s worth a read to learn more about what goes into a trusted carbon credit program.

Addressing Concerns with Carbon Credits

A common concern is that wildfires can decimate protected forests. But it’s not news that fires burn down trees. Verra requires forestry projects to put as much as 30% of their credits into a global “buffer” account, which acts as insurance for losses from events like wildfires. Like other insurance policies, if trees are lost, credits are “paid out” of this pool.

For more background, you can read all about how Verra verifies its credits to ensure truly high-quality credits here.

Another major initiative Oliver didn’t see fit to mention was the ICVCM – the Integrity Council for Voluntary Carbon Markets. This project seeks to do exactly what John says isn’t being done – hold carbon credits to independent standards.

By only talking about questionable credits and how companies use them to justify emissions, Oliver makes it sound like carbon offsets do more harm than help. However, many companies (like CO2ign Art!) don’t just want to break even on carbon – we want positive change. For example, another little company you may have heard of (called Disney) draws Oliver’s criticism – but as Verra points out, Disney “joined the climate challenge long before it was popular and has been doing it right. The company has been slashing its internal emissions for a decade.”

Ultimately, carbon credits are just one part of the effort to combat climate change, but an important one.

How CO2ign Uses Carbon Credits

By posting their work on CO2ign, artists can use their artwork to help the environment while making some extra income.

We use fifty percent of every sale to buy carbon credits from projects verified as meeting high-quality standards. Our credits meet the standards used by CORSIA – which qualifies credits used as offsets by international airlines – and we’ll continue to follow the highest standards as they continue developing.

The price of credits fluctuates, but most pieces on CO2ign Art fund two or more credits. As we saw earlier, every carbon credit is worth a (literal) ton of carbon. That adds up fast if you have a slight art-buying addiction like we do!

Even better – those credits aren’t to offset emissions from the business or the energy used to deliver the art (which is extremely minimal). They’re a gift to Earth as a dearly-needed “I owe you” note.

the credits used for CO2ign art aren’t to offset emissions from the business; they’re a gift to Earth as a dearly-needed “I owe you” note

We Still Love You, John.

It’s the unfortunate reality that not all companies operate in good faith. It’s also true that not all carbon offsets are created equally. But as we said above – those are the exceptions. Many companies use carbon offsets in good faith, and there are dedicated organizations in charge of making sure those carbon credits are of good quality

The absolute largest hurdle for carbon credits to overcome is education. To his credit, Oliver is trying hard to educate while he keeps the laughs coming. And it’s valuable for people to have the knowledge to call out companies acting in bad faith. Ultimately, Oliver missing a few key points doesn’t detract from the heart of the matter – our planet is changing and fast. As he put it, we’re the “Oscar Isaac of planets, in that it seems to be getting alarmingly hotter, every year.”

Anyone, not just corporations, can purchase carbon credits, which Oliver showed when he created Oliver’s Offsets. And something important can happen with the proper education, understanding, and investment in carbon credits from the general public. As the demand for carbon offsets rises (along with their price) and consumers continue to hold companies accountable, companies will be forced to make a decision. Do they continue to purchase these increasingly spendy offsets, or do they take action to actively reduce carbon emissions?