Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Offset your carbon emissions

Last year, buying goats and cows for Christmas became very popular. A number of charities and development organisations provided possibilities to directly invest in rural Africa, on a small scale, and very concretely help individuals and families, while also providing a way of getting pleasure from giving during the holidaytime.

The next big thing, and by no means limited to Christmas or other holidays, will be offsetting your carbon emissions, or offsetting someone else's carbon emissions for them. Prompted by the growing awareness about climate change and the sense of urgency to do something about it while governments and political and business leaders debate which course of action to take, people are taking the matter in their own hands. Businesses are also realising how important this is not only for the environment but also for their image. So, a number of schemes are now available to calculate your carbon emissions, and donate money for projects that offset these emissions. These projects range from planting trees to developing wind power.

Many businesses are now doing this on a large scale - they are offsetting the emissions from all the flights that their employers take, for instance, and all the emissions from the fleet of their company's cars and the offices produce. One of the providers of this service, carbonneutral.com, has a 5-step program that it offers to companies. First, their emissions are calculated, second, they suggest ways in which to cut down these emissions. Third, they figure out schemes that would help offsetting those emissions that would suit the company, and fourth, the company donates money via carbonneutral to these projects. Finally, the company gets a certificate for being "carbon neutral". Companies like Honda and The Rolling Stones do this already, and the ranks are growing.

I like the combined approach, where you in the first instance try to cut down your emissions (which usually saves you money), and then pay for all the rest, which of course not only promotes the projects but gives you an extra incentive to keep cutting your actual emissions.

Individuals can do this, too. There are calculators for analysing and offsetting the emissions from your flights, your driving and your home. I just checked, and to offset the emissions from a return flight from London to Finland costs you just under £5. And, you can offset someone else's emissions as a present. They'll send that person a certificate and some bits and bobs so that the "material" side of the present is there also.

Of course, there are two things that worry me about this. First, that this becomes just a way of buying a clean conscience and doesn't lead to reduction in emissions. As the UK environment secretary David Milliband said: “Offsetting isn't the answer to climate change. The first step should always be to see how we can avoid and reduce emissions – through thinking about how we use energy in our homes and businesses, and the way we travel. However, some emissions can't or won't be avoided. That's where offsetting has a role to play. It's a way of compensating for the emissions produced with an equivalent carbon saving.”

The second thing that I worry about is that this becomes the new brand of eco-fascism: anyone not offsetting their emissions would need to explain their actions. There is a similar issue in the UK with the Poppy campaign, where before Remembrance Day red poppies are sold for the benefit of veterans of the wars, and you have the hell to pay if you for instance appear on TV without one. Given what Milliband said about offsetting, and given that just like in supporting veterans there are more than one ways of doing it, I'd be very worried if this became a "must" thing to do, even though I of course hope this would take on. I guess it's about doing it for the right reasons rather than just going through the moves that counts - just like with any presents you give.

(Pic: www.oplin.org)

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