20 reasons the UN's carbon offset video was a terrible idea

James Murray
20 reasons the UN's carbon offset video was a terrible idea

'Breathe easy'? Really? Is that what you want to go with?

Did you see it? It wasn't up for long before, amidst allegations the whole thing was "bizarre" and "shameful", the UNFCCC pulled its video short promoting carbon offset schemes, but did you see it?

Climate Home News has a good summary of the video's "jokey tone" and narrative arc, which shows a man trying to cut his carbon footprint by seeing his car, airplane, and steak dinner vanish, before he then attempts to hold his breath. At that point the narrator intervenes to declare, "OK, we know that's slightly impractical, so here's the real solution", directing viewers to the UN's revamped carbon offset site.

Was it a spoof? A misfiring attempt at satire? A hack by a bunch of climate sceptics displaying hitherto unseen levels of sophistication?  Who knows.

Only one thing is certain, it was a truly terrible idea. And here, with apologies to City Metric's Jonn Elledge, are 20 reasons why:

  1. The production values. It looks like a student video. And not a film student video, but a video made by a GCSE drama student - who is about to fail their exams. All the budget must have gone on the special effects.

  2. The special effects. The plane set looks like no plane you have ever been on. The sound effects. The disappearing car. None of this has the faintest ring of plausibility.

  3. And what of that budget? The UNFCCC is famously cash strapped. It has to orchestrate globally important negotiations but all too frequently finds donor countries refusing to release promised funds. Like the British government's gloriously low rent adverts for its Green Deal scheme, it doesn't look like much was spent on this video, but even if the budget was €5 and a borrowed iPhone then that still poses questions about how and why it was signed off.

  4. Of course, any artistic critique pales into significance next to the epic flaws on display in the video's core message.

  5. The first and last rule of debating is not to accept the premise of your opponent. Here the UNFCCC doesn't just accept the premise of climate contrarians and critics of decarbonisation. It actively endorses and promotes it.

  6. If your worst critics present decarbonisation as a joyless creed that requires people to give up many of the things they regard as fun, then probably best not to rubber stamp that world view through official UN channels.

  7. If the most nonsensical and offensive 'joke' thrown at those who are worried about climate change by alt-right internet warriors is 'if you care so much about carbon dioxide why don't you stop breathing', then you don't really want the global secretariat charged with promoting climate action repeating the line as if it is actually funny.

  8. You've got to feel sorry for the actor. He's got an awful script, a dubious message, and minimal direction. That said, if the task is to express the complexity and tragedy of an ethical dilemma that has led to one's self asphyxiation then gurning like Lee Evans at an Ibizan nightclub at 3am is probably not the artistic choice you want to make. Brando-esque this is not. Alan Partridge would have done it better.

  9. Seriously though, don't mock those people who are actually willing to give up cars, flights, and steaks in a bid to cut their emissions.

  10. They might not have worked out an effective strategy for scaling such low carbon lifestyles, but given the size of the climate crisis these people are heroes. They don't deserve to be belittled by anyone.

  11. Oh, and that steak. It looks terrible. And who eats steak on its own? It is beyond the abilities of the UN's chosen actor to look genuinely happy at the prospect, and understandably so.

  12. OK. This is the difficult bit. You don't want to hammer people with the message decarbonisation means giving up fun things, but you also don't want to tell them it means not even trying to give up these things either. Every decarbonisation scenario endorsed by the UN requires drastic long term reductions in emissions from cars, planes, and food.

  13. We may not have to give up flying, driving, and eating steak, but we could stand to do it less wherever possible. And where we do continue to do these things we are eventually going to have to swap out SUVs and conventional planes for electric vehicles and low carbon aircraft.

  14. In fairness the UN does say you should cut emissions where possible. But what do you define as possible?

  15. "We know that's slightly impractical," declares the narrator, but what is he referring to. Stopping breathing? In that case it is more than "slightly impractical". Trading in your massive SUV, flying a bit less, eating fewer steaks? In certain circumstances that may be a bit impractical, but plenty of people manage it.

  16. And why not point out it is getting more practical? That's the key point here. You can switch to electric cars or lower carbon foods or even aircraft using greener fuels. Why not at least mention the huge exciting and positive changes we will have to make to deliver deep decarbonisation? Don't just do your opponents' work for them and present the whole thing as a massive chore.

  17. Of course, once you've done that you can think about offsetting. It's always going to be controversial, especially given the well documented flaws with some offset schemes. But equally, the imminent launch of the CORSIA aviation offset scheme and the long term plan to build a global net zero emission economy means some form of tradable carbon system is here to stay. There's nothing wrong with promoting that fact, but if you simply position it as a way to allow people to "breathe easy" while undertaking high carbon activities then you are only handing ammunition to those who regard offsets as a modern version of Catholic indulgences. 

  18. Which reminds me, "breathe easy"? "Keep calm and offset"? The UNFCCC has done a sterling job over the past decade convincing the world that we can't "breathe easy" over escalating climate risks, anything but. Why contradict this message just to promote some offset credits? What were they thinking?

  19. And ultimately that's the big reason this video is such a terrible idea. Yes, it's a storm in the proverbial tea cup. Its rapid removal suggests the UNFCCC quickly realised it had got this one wrong and Megan Darby at Climate Home News is, as we speak chasing an explanation as to what happened. But the video's very existence suggests even within the organisation tasked with cajoling the world towards a low carbon future the zombie myths about the hairshirt nature of modern environmentalism and the ability to solve climate change through modest offset investments continue to lumber on.
  1. I thought we were long past this point, but obviously not. "Breathe easy"? Seriously?

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