We’re guessing many readers have heard of carbon offsets. Perhaps, when purchasing a flight ticket online, you’ve seen an option to ‘offset’ the carbon emissions generated by your upcoming trip. Carbon offsets are a tool of climate governance that have grown increasingly important since their invention in the late 1980s. Considered part of what’s called the ‘voluntary carbon market’, they are increasingly used by companies of all sorts (including Big Tech companies and the tech sector more broadly) to compensate for their extractive and carbon-intensive practices. Most recently, offsetting schemes have been incorporated into efforts to promote and preserve biodiversity (called ‘biodiversity credits’) by monetizing efforts to plant or sustain forests and packaging their anticipated carbon sequestration value for sale on the carbon market. It all sounds good on paper: take a flight, plant (a) tree(s). The problem is that underneath this simple premise are a number of issues that have led the climate justice movement to call out carbon offsets and carbon markets as ‘false climate solutions’.
In the context of climate justice advocacy, the term ‘false climate solution’ refers to technologies and paradigms that are positioned as solutions to climate and environmental crises, but actually perpetuate and intensify existing harms.
As climate justice movements have documented, carbon markets reinforce exploitative colonial structures rather than promoting a just future, leading to many cases where indigenous communities are forced off their land in favor of giant fossil fuel companies and commercial carbon offset providers, as well as contributing to other human rights violations. Alongside these existential issues is the fact that the science and accounting behind this seemingly simple idea don’t ‘work’: carbon offsetting plans fail to account for ecological complexities (a tree planted in one place cannot equal a flight taken in others) and promote monocultures that aren’t ecologically sustainable. In June 2023, as New York was lit by the eerie orange glow of forest fire smoke from Canada, it became apparent that the territories on fire included monoculture tree plantations planted for carbon offsetting schemes. This wasn’t the first time a tool of carbon sequestration went up in flames.
In the same month, with torrential tropical rainfall soaking the bounteous botanical gardens just outside our conference room in Costa Rica, we gathered for a workshop on how digital rights advocates can help counter false and misleading climate/tech solutions. It was one of a number of recent discussions around false climate tech solutions happening across collaborations between groups focused on technology, human rights, and social justice (e.g. the Association for Progressive Communications and the Green Screen Coalition). Together with a group of earth defenders, digital rights advocates, and grantmakers working on tech and climate issues across different regions of the world, we set out to explore the interlinked questions: What false and misleading climate solutions does the digital rights sector need to be aware of, and how can those within the digital rights and climate justice movements act in greater solidarity when fighting against them? This was an important moment to reflect on how those newer to environmental and climate issues could best engage and complement the work of movements that have been fighting false climate solutions for decades.
One of the areas we zeroed in on was carbon markets and how they perpetuate a capitalist mindset that reduces natural elements to mere financial commodities, thereby ignoring the multidimensional and intertwined values that nature intrinsically has and provides to human beings (e.g. well-being and spiritual significance). We also discussed how carbon markets fail to acknowledge the crucial role that indigenous and local communities have been playing in combating climate change, instead centralising power in the hands of a few players, and making it seem as though large corporations, including major carbon polluters, are doing their bit to prevent climate change. For instance, some patronising practices under carbon markets include corporations paying local and indigenous communities not to destroy ecosystems. This falsely paints these corporations as climate heroes and protectors of nature when in fact it is indigenous and local communities who have for centuries known how to best live in harmony with their local ecosystem, and big industries who have caused the climate crisis.
So what can ‘we’ do to push back against carbon market harms? One overarching theme was the importance of challenging existing societal power structures which perpetuate colonial and exploitative dynamics, which carbon markets feed into and intensify.
With several grantmakers in the room, the discussion turned to the role of equitable and just funding strategies to support climate and environmental movements. The importance of unrestricted and adequate funding for grassroots and community-based organizations was discussed as an essential component of supporting communities that already have long-standing ‘solutions’ to continue their essential work pushing for climate and environmental justice.
Equally, with more large foundations (and other institutions) investing in climate tech solutions, there’s a need for critical awareness around the risks and harms of climate technologies, like solar geoengineering, and the dangers of recent efforts to further monetize nature (and offer more carbon offsets) through the use of remote sensing, blockchain, and AI. Also discussed was the possibility of extending institutional divestment efforts beyond their focus on fossil fuel companies to include harmful and dangerous climate technologies.
The need to counter mainstream narratives around the supposed greenness, neutrality and inherent good of digital technologies was also raised, along with the connected issue of how technology and the tech industry perpetuate prevailing societal prejudices and shortcomings, including racism and classism. Countering these misleading narratives requires stronger efforts to take Big Tech companies to task for their contributions to fossil fuel emissions and other extractive and resource-intensive practices.
Highlighting the energy costs and ecosystemic harms of data centres and bringing attention to the environmental costs and human rights violations of mineral extraction for technology manufacturing are two areas where advocacy and resistance have been growing, but further support is required through coalition-building across movements. The promotion of appropriate, just, and local solutions is an essential piece of such work. For instance, the climate movement is working with workers’ rights movements to ensure that a ‘just transition’ to a more sustainable society doesn’t simply mean shutting down fossil fuel plants and energy-guzzling technological systems without first factoring in how ordinary workers within these sectors can find fair, alternative work and live meaningful lives. Our conversation also called attention to the importance of pressuring exploitative companies, as well as the countries most responsible, to make reparations and pay damages to those most negatively affected by climate change.
Our conversation concluded with a discussion on the commitments that those in the room and their organizations could make to help push back against false and misleading climate solutions. Those present made commitments that focused on developing and disseminating knowledge on this topic through education programmes and evidence databases, ensuring that digital environmental justice efforts get funding, and dispelling techno-solutionism in funding and policy spaces, among others.
Going forward, it’s clear that much more support and resources will be required to push for a truly just transition. Part of the struggle will be in making sure that sustainability efforts aren’t sidetracked or delayed by investments into harmful technologies and paradigms that perpetuate exploitative relations between people and earth. We invite readers to learn more about the important work already undertaken by the climate justice movement to counter false climate solutions, and to join current calls to action against the harms of carbon markets.
Further resources and calls to action:
[Educational resource]: Hoodwinked in the Hothouse
[Educational resource]: Anti-Greenwashing Educational Toolkit
[Petition]: Demand Climate Justice for Madagascar
[Open letter]: Geoengineering non-use agreement
[Organization]: Indigenous Environmental Network
[Organization]: Center for International Environmental Law
[Organization]: ETC Group
[Organization]: Natural Justice
Nikita Kekana is Senior Legal Officer at the Digital Freedom Fund (DFF). DFF helps advance and protect human rights in the digital space in Europe through grantmaking and community strengthening and support events. Through her work at Digital Freedom Fund, Greenpeace International and OceanHub Africa, Nikita has and continues to work on projects on digital environmental justice. One such initiative that is particularly close to her heart is OceanHub Africa’s acceleration programme, which helps develop start-ups on the African continent that are making a positive ocean impact.
Becky Kazansky is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Amsterdam, where she investigates the politics of digital climate technologies. Previously she was Research Lead at The Engine Room, where she led research exploring intersections of digital rights and climate justice. She is collaborating with civil society groups like the Association for Progressive Communications to advance research and organizing at these intersections.