Thursday, January 18, 2007

Carbon Week: Day 4 ~ Carbon Offsetting: Greenwash or Golden Opportunity?

Well, yes, I did actually pay to offset my emissions in the end, through The Carbon Neutral Company. (You get a nifty certificate and a rather stylish recycled leather flying luggage label, which I have now re-branded as a train luggage label.) Salvation at the click of a button comes remarkably cheap too. But is that all it is?

What is carbon offsetting?
Carbon offset refers to the process of taking action to rebalance carbon emissions. This is predominantly done by purchasing carbon credits generated by investing in schemes, often in developing countries, such as energy efficiency (e.g. installing energy saving technologies in housing developments), renewable energy (e.g. wind farms) and sink (e.g. forestry) projects. A carbon offset negates the release of CO2e (Co2 or carbon dioxide equivalent) by avoiding the release of, or removing from the atmosphere the same amount of CO2e somewhere else. The "carbon saving" this creates theoretically offsets the "carbon deficit" created by an individual or company. This process is then referred to as becoming "carbon neutral".

The controversy
1. choice of schemes backed
Tree-planting is controversial due to scientific concerns that the carbon absorbed by a tree during its life is released back into the atmosphere when it dies or is cut down, thus providing no "additionality". Other concerns centre around the quality of the forestry projects,such as large-scale monoculture tree plantations which often have negative impacts on the environment. As a result of these concerns, many offset companies now focus predominantly on renewable projects instead (Fro instance, 85% of The Carbon Neutral Company portfolio is now invested in renewables. Their Natural Wood Portfolio supports indigenous trees within long term woodlands in the UK that aid rural regeneration)
2. Accreditation
Problem is, like any new or evolving market, this is a largely unregulated area, and as a result exposes itself to criticism. Today the government has launched a consultation on voluntary implementation of The Gold Standard Code of Practise to ensure positive contribution of all schemes. The Government's standard is based on the use of certified credits from the established Kyoto market, through sources such as the UN's Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). These credits are backed by an international framework and institutions to ensure that real emission reductions take place, as well as providing a clear audit trail.
The code of practice proposes that offset providers supply consumers with clear information and transparent prices. Defra will provide guidance to consumers on offsetting, which will also help consumers to make informed decisions about their actions.
3. Not a viable alternative
Environmental organisations, such as Friends of the Earth, are sceptical of offsetting and view it as permission to pollute. This morning Tony Juniper on the Today programme pointed out the biggest problem of all: offsetting is not an alternative to using fossil fuel and must be seen as a last resort, rather than as a panacea for eccessive carbon use. Ultimately, carbon emissions must be cut at source.

For me, carbon offsetting proved to be a useful way of helping me evaluate the impact of my activities. But offsets will not stop climate change on their own - to do that we are going to have to reduce our personal emissions. My three pronged attack I set out yesterday is my personal commitment to reducing my emissions. What's yours?

Defra: offsetting - FAQ's

Commercial providers of offsets in the UK:
The Carbon Neutral Company
Climate Care
Carbon Clear
Climate Stewards
Tree Flights
Two charities that provide offsets:
The Climate Change Trust

[Photos from Island Blogging]


Tractorboy said...

Hi. Just seen your site and will link to it from mine ( I'm not against carbon offsets, and like you recognise that the real answer is for us to change our behaviour to cause less harm and live more sustainably. That said, I would strongly urge you to visit this site and its links, which really got me thinking and is the reason why I have not bought any carbon offsets - Cheers.

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