CARBON neutral oil is the oxymoron of the moment. Oil that through some sleight of hand, some magic of credits and offsets, becomes emissions free!

Last week, a certificate was issued in China for the first shipment in the country of full life cycle “carbon-neutral” petroleum – achieved through a combination of energy-saving and emission-reduction strategies as well as the purchase of Chinese Certified Emission Reduction carbon credits. The rabbit of greenhouse gas emissions had vanished from the hat. Cue round of applause.

It’s one of the issues around carbon offset that the world will want to bear in mind when, in November, the issue of the carbon market will be thrashed out as part of Article 6 at COP26. Will this carbon market really be about reducing emissions or just allowing the meeting of targets on paper? Will there be an effective mechanism for preventing double-accounting? Are we just creating a system that does more than just allow rich countries to meet their climate targets, without too much change, by paying to dump their carbon in projects outside their territory?

The China news is one of a steady drip of such news these days. In January, Occidental Petroleum announced that it had become the first in the world to sell a shipload of crude that was 100 per cent carbon-neutral. More than a million tons of greenhouse gas emissions produced over its lifecycle had been offset by purchasing carbon credits.

Last year, Lundin Energy was the first in the world to receive certification for producing low-carbon oil. This year, it plans to offset by planting eight million trees in Spain and Ghana. When Shell made its own suggestion for a global plan for how the world could limit warming to1.5 degrees, a key element was the planting of forest almost the size of Brazil.

Gordon Dewar, chief executive of Edinburgh airport, meanwhile has said that all Scottish flights could become carbon neutral by offsetting their impact on the environment through funding solar power.

Such promises, even given plans for some island flights to go electric soon in the coming years, sound a little too much like flying on the wings of carbon neutral hot air. They obscure the reality that, as an SNP Transport minister acknowledged last week, “Without a reduction in aviation demand, the transport sector will not be able to achieve its emissions envelope for 2030.”

READ MORE: Fellowship of the rings: Why we must protect our ancient trees

Last week, the Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets, which was set up by Mark Carney, announced the formation of a an independent watchdog to create a global benchmark for carbon credit validity. Will we be able to trust it? The steady drip of rabbit-from-the-hat carbon-neutral stories indicate the need for continued scepticism around the carbon market, full stop.

For instance, a recent report found that 20 percent of of carbon credits created by the Australian government's main climate change policy did not represent real cuts in carbon dioxide but were essentially “junk”.

It’s also not just the oil industry involved in this feat of magic. The emissions offset market has shown a relentless upward trend over the recent year. Carbon offset is based around investment in a number of type of projects – key among them are renewables, which are become increasingly viable without such finance, and forestry. I am a lover of trees, an advocate for rewilding and protecting existing biodiverse forests, but there are many reasons to be cautious around an approach that sees trees and land purely as offsets.

We need, for instance, to ask how this approach is going to impact on the way land is used globally – how it will impact on those who live in these places. Many people talk about what is going on in the "Global South". Climate activist Yeb Sano, for instance, recently wrote declaring that “the Global South is not a blank space for polluters to fill with trees that serve their interests”.

But we might want to be concerned here in Scotland, too. Standard Life Investments Property Income Trust announced recently that it had acquired 1447 hectares of land in the Cairngorms to be “used as part of the company’s carbon strategy” – the plan being to plant around 1.5 million trees as part of an “ecological restoration” project. This might sound good, but land campaigners have started to talk of the rise of “green lairds” and their fear that this is the start of another period of land “exploitation”. The land campaigner Peter Peacock described this as part of “a new trend in land purchases by private interests seeking to cash in on the climate emergency”.

READ MORE: Don't buy the doom – we can still alter this climate path

There’s a danger that Scotland, and many parts of the world, becomes defined by carbon offset; that vast tracts of land become engines for the processing of the carbon of those who do not live there; and that, worse still, in the end, when we peer inside the magician’s hat of the carbon market, the rabbit of greenhouse gas emissions is still sitting there.


Subscribe to The Herald and don't miss a single word from your favourite writers by clicking here