UN Environment official attacks agency’s own carbon offsetting policy

Confusion reigns as UN Environment publishes, then retracts, an article criticising the use of carbon credits to make up for polluting activities

The aviation industry has agreed to offset emissions growth from 2020 (Pic: Flickr/Mercedes Dayanara)


UN Environment published an unusually stark critique of carbon offsetting on Monday. On Tuesday, the article was taken down, following queries by Climate Home News.

In the original article, archived by the Wayback Machine, a climate specialist at the UN organisation warned against considering carbon offsets as “our get-out-jail-free card”.

“The era of carbon offsets is drawing to a close,” Niklas Hagelberg wrote. “Buying carbon credits in exchange for a clean conscience while you carry on flying, buying diesel cars and powering your home with fossil fuels is no longer acceptable or widely accepted.”

Since 2008, UN Environment has claimed to be climate neutral, based on buying carbon credits from a scheme administered by UN Climate Change. While not indicating any change to that policy, the commentary appeared to attack the underlying concept of polluters paying others to cut emissions on their behalf.

Contacted by Climate Home News, Hagelberg blamed the editing process for introducing some “conflicting messages” to his original text. “This is a web story not an official position paper. However [UN Environment] does see offsets as an intermediate solution.”

The following day, a revised article took a softer line: carbon offsetting went from “no longer acceptable” to “being challenged by people concerned about climate change”. Spokespersons at UN Environment and UN Climate Change did not respond to requests for comment.

Keep calm and carry on flying and eating steak: UN Climate Change ad criticised

At issue is a system set up under the Kyoto Protocol to allow rich countries to gain carbon credits by investing in emission reduction projects in the developing world. UN Climate Change has since repurposed it as a voluntary mechanism for businesses, organisations and individuals to offset some of their carbon footprint.

Last August, UN Climate Change came under fire for releasing a video promoting carbon offsets as an easy remedy to climate change. Entitled “keep calm and offset”, the advertisement appeared to suggest that viewers could lead a carbon-heavy lifestyle as long as they offset their emissions. It was taken down after a backlash.

Carbon offsets have long been a controversial proposition to tackle the climate crisis. At the last UN climate summit in December, negotiators were unable to reach consensus on whether and how to continue Kyoto-era offset schemes under the Paris Agreement. Talks resume in Bonn, Germany this month.

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In parallel, the International Civil Aviation Organization is considering what types of carbon credits can be used by airlines to offset their emissions growth.

Transport & Environment, a Brussels-based campaign group for cleaner transport, urged UN Environment to restore the article “in the interest of effective climate policy”.

“With the aviation sector targeting offsetting as its get-out-of-jail-card for climate action, this piece threw some necessary cold water on what is an extremely problematic climate tool,” said campaigner Andrew Murphy.

This story was updated on 12 June, with reference to the revised article published by UN Environment

Read more on: Carbon markets | Climate finance