Most carbon credit schemes, where real-world pollution is traded for theoretical emissions reductions, are at least borderline bullshit. Through the language of carbon offsets, companies and governments can rely on shoddy calculations to make themselves look environmentally aware, while actively pumping more greenhouse gases into Earth’s atmosphere.
Under the guise of ‘protecting forests elsewhere,’ polluters can trash their own backyards accountability-free. Then, when those faraway trees go up in smoke, there’s still no accountability because, well, at least they tried. With few exceptions, it’s greenwashing at it’s finest.
But now two artists, Sam Lavigne and Tega Brain, are trying to change that through an innovative carbon credit scheme. Their project, Offset, takes the structure of a free-market approach to climate change and applies it to actions like blockading coal shipments or damaging construction equipment being used to build new Exxon pipelines.
Any activity that disrupts the fossil fuel industry or other major climate polluters could potentially be put up for sale on the proposed carbon credit exchange. That is, assuming the action meets the criteria of “already completed and publicly verifiable,” Lavigne and Brain told Gizmodo via email. The artists also noted their hope is to “focus on projects where people are concerned less with reducing their own emissions, and more with reducing the emissions of others.”
All revenue from carbon credits sold through that marketplace would be given to climate activist groups, the project website notes (although Lavigne and Brain said they’re still working out the exact payment plans). In other words, Offset seeks to monetize what some might call ecoterrorism, which—contrary to far-right conspiracy theories—hasn’t historically been a particularly lucrative field.
If you’re less inclined toward aggressive confrontation with oil and coal companies, don’t worry: there may still be a place for you in the scheme. The project also allows for other direct actions that uptake or store carbon, like “guerrilla gardening” or tree sitting and forest protecting, to be included in its proposed carbon credit market.
Reminder: Things like damaging pipeline infrastructure or construction equipment, shutting down a refinery, and blockading shipping traffic are illegal and dangerous activities.
“Offset is a platform that aims to generate high integrity, premium carbon credits from industrial sabotage and direct actions,” Lavigne and Brain wrote on the project’s recently launched website. In addition to coming up with the concept, the two have also developed a relatively robust method for actually estimating the amount of emissions stored, avoided, or taken up through qualifying direct actions.
Using time-based accounting of the harm and value of emitted versus stored carbon, plus existing methods employed by other carbon credit registries and proposed by scientists, the artists aim to assign a numerical value to fucking things up.
“This methodology aims to quantify the carbon benefits of industrial sabotage and other direct actions in order to award them the carbon credits they are due, in the same way that other positive climate actions are rewarded,” they wrote.
The 2021 coal shipment blockade—wherein a group of Australian activists shut down the port of Newcastle for 10 days—resulted in an estimated 1,681.7 metric tons of carbon emissions offset, according to Lavigne and Brain’s calculations.
Why? Well because it put the coal on hold. From their website:
From a physical standpoint, bringing a coal port to a standstill for a week is the same as temporarily storing the coal in the port for that same time period but with the added benefit of drawing public attention to the urgent need to transition away from the production, export, and combustion of fossil fuels.
Therefore, we assert that industrial sabotage should be considered a form of temporary carbon storage.
Additionally, the artists determined that the 2021 ExxonMobil pipeline disruption, in which activist Scott Breen (AKA Digger) dug and occupied a pit near an aviation pipeline construction site in the U.K., was equal to 120.47 metric tons of CO2 offset—because of how it contributed to delays in the pipeline’s completion.
In a proof-of-concept example, Lavigne and Brain also calculated that a hypothetical action, in which someone managed to immobilize Bill Gates’ fleet of 14 private jets for two weeks, would directly offset 18 kg of carbon emissions. However, through their time-dependent analysis, if someone were to have taken those same private jets out of commission in the year 2017, the offsets would’ve been equal to 8,000 metric tons of CO2. The message: direct action and climate change mitigation today is more valuable than direct action and climate change mitigation tomorrow. And private jets are terrible.
Of course, if enacted, Offset would have the same problem that all carbon credit exchanges have: It would theoretically give its buyers license to go on polluting. However, unlike other carbon markets, it would also incentivize actively disrupting pollution.
Often, carbon credit exchanges engage in double-counting and overestimating the contributions of things like planted trees, carbon capture, or preserved forest acres. With Offset, it’s much easier to imagine the artists’ model under- rather than overvaluing the true contribution of direct action.
Their accounting assesses the time value of stored carbon and the amount of carbon emissions avoided but not any of the less tangible benefits of direct action for the planet. For instance: what of the people inspired by what they see? What of the direct expense and inconvenience to the companies? What of the cultural shift toward people rejecting the fossil fuel status quo?
Offset seems to understand the absurdity of carbon crediting as a mode of mitigating climate change, and so the project also understands that the true value of an action isn’t captured in the numerical assessment—no matter how robust. Nonetheless, it’s a value worth recognizing and recording.
“Our research revealed that avoided emissions from activism goes uncounted and overlooked by carbon platforms,” Brain and Lavigne wrote. “We aim to rectify this situation.”
This might sound like a clever joke, but by all appearances, the artists are serious about bringing their vision to life. Right now, Lavigne and Brain are seeking to get their offset accounting method officially approved by the Emissions Reduction Assurance Committee, the Australian regulatory body that approves such projects.
They’re also seeking public suggestions for additional offsets to add to the registry before their marketplace goes live. If you have any recommendations for direct actions that fit the bill, the creators of Offset want to know. You can suggest new “instances of industrial sabotage and direct action,” for consideration in the registry. Just uh, be smart about it and maybe don’t self-indict. “Please do not share any sensitive information,” the artists note in fine print at the bottom of the form. Though, asked if they plan to report any submitters to law enforcement, the two responded, “Obviously no.”