Postcard from California: Are corporate “climate offsets” just greenwashing?

By Bill Walker

Apple touts the newest model of the Apple Watch as its first “carbon neutral” product – made with “100% clean energy” and “recycled and renewable materials” and shipped by “lower-carbon modes” instead of by air. But a close look at the watch’s environmental specs shows that reducing emissions of greenhouse gases in its manufacturing and supply chain only goes so far.

More than one-fifth of the claimed savings in emissions are attributed to Apple’s purchase of so-called climate offsets, including shares in a project to plant eucalyptus timber plantations in eastern Paraguay, far from its Silicon Valley headquarters or its factories in China.

The project’s backers say the climate offsets it is buying reflect a reduction in eastern Paraguay’s emissions from cattle ranching, a leading source of planet-heating methane. But human rights groups say the scheme is driving peasant farmers from their land for little actual climate gain as most of the newly planted trees will be harvested quickly for consumer products.

Apple is but one of many corporate giants that has pledged to cut its company-wide emissions to “net zero” by 2030, joined by Google, Disney, Netflix and many more brands.

Even ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, and Chevron – the multinational oil companies that are the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases in the last decade – say they will be net zero by 2050.

According to the nonprofit Net Zero Tracker, more than 1,000 of the world’s largest companies have publicly declared goals of net zero by midcentury or before.

To get there, most plan to claim their purchases of climate offsets, also known as carbon credits, as emissions reductions. Through exchanges called verifiers or certifiers, companies buy, sell and trade shares in schemes that promise to reduce emissions, supposedly offsetting the climate pollution the companies can’t, or won’t, eliminate from their own operations.