Interview with Dr Robbie Watt (@Robbie_Watt) about the fantasy of carbon offsetting.

The winners and runners-up of the Environmental Politics Best Article of the Year Award have been announced. We’re inviting the individuals/teams to say a little bit more. Below find the answers of Dr Robbie Watt, author of “The fantasy of carbon offsetting.”

1. Tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to be interested in the subject of the article.

I first looked at carbon offsetting in 2010 when I was studying for an MSc in climate change and development at the University of Sussex, and I found their contradictions fascinating and infuriating. Then I wrote a PhD thesis about carbon offsetting at the University of Manchester. However, by the end of the PhD, I had lost confidence in my research. I felt I had little to add to the already comprehensive critical literature on offsetting, and I was no longer too keen on the ‘moral economy’ conceptual framework that I used for the thesis. I was my own “reviewer 2”. My colleague Japhy Wilson was writing about ideology and fantasy, so I read his work, read some of Slavoj Žižek’s books, read papers by Rob Fletcher, and decided that there was something worth writing about the fantasy of carbon offsetting.

 2. What was the first thing you did when you found out the article had received the recognition it has? Punched the air and started singing “We are the champions”? Made yourself a celebratory drink? Downed tools for the day?

I stared at my screen containing the email and wondered if there was some mistake! I read the message slowly another couple of times and stared at my laptop some more. I took a photograph of the email with my phone, as if it could disappear, texted my other half the photo and said ‘chuffed’. I wrote back to the editors and thanked them. I felt a bit dazed. I had been through a lot of struggles to create this paper, and I substantially re-wrote it during peer review, so the recognition was of course gratifying. I also know that the peer reviewers and the editor, Graeme Hayes, played crucial roles in improving the quality of the manuscript – but I couldn’t exactly write to them and say ‘congratulations!’

3. If you had the undivided attention of policymakers for five minutes, what would you say to them about your topic – what needs to happen (or not happen) around the issue you raised, in your opinion

Much as I’d like five minutes with policymakers, this paper was not written for them. Its main recommendation is to ‘traverse the fantasy that sustains carbon offsetting’, so it is clearly not a policy brief. Regretfully, I don’t even say much in the paper about what it means to traverse fantasy. Japhy Wilson wrote in 2014 that traversing fantasy ‘involves confronting our own relations to enjoyment – as well as exposing those organised by the fantasy machine of capitalist ideology’. We are commanded to enjoy capitalism and its vastly unequal social relations, and we are told to welcome capitalist growth logics founded on exploitation, dispossession, and environmental destruction. I’d like policymakers to recognise that carbon offsetting serves capital far more than the public or climatic stabilisation, and drop the pretence. But knowledge or recognition won’t be enough to traverse fantasy; this will require related transformations of, and away from, the destructive capitalist social order. I believe policy-makers should see their job as to progressively advance this transformation.

4. What next? Are you working on further articles/books on this topic? If not, what ARE you working on?

Carbon offsetting is resurgent, captivating the current crop of corporate ‘sustainability’ leaders, getting rebrands, taskforces, and new leases of life in various climate policies, so I feel compelled (or condemned?) to stay with the trouble. Sometimes I’m just trying to stay up to date with developments so that I might write more about them. I am also studying the increasing links between carbon offsets and ‘crypto-currencies’, neither of which do what their advocates claim. There is some work to do in making sense of this, without making it seem rational. I’m afraid that it’s a case of a neoliberal climate policy connecting with some wealthy libertarians who are speculating on digital tokens. There is a view that flawed, unsustainable blockchain technology will become the future of everything, including carbon markets; but this is a political wrong-turn linked to a financial bubble that ought to pop sooner rather than later, so the aim is to produce a co-authored critical review of such developments before long.

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