Don't rely on offsetting to absolve your carbon sins

Offsetting has emerged as one of the key ethical dilemmas of the environmental movement. Is it a good first step to acting more responsibly towards our environmental impact or the lazy act of a society that wants to sweep the climate change crisis under the proverbial carpet?

The debate has been frequently aired in recent weeks following the UK government's decision to introduce a code of best practice for carbon offsetting suppliers this autumn. An excellent summary of the thorny issue is provided by the Ethical Corporation magazine in a piece entitled The Carbon Con?

The piece paints a picture of the offsetting market as something akin to the Wild West. Suppliers are largely unregulated and prices for offsets vary widely, from 50p to £10 per tonne of carbon dioxide. And auditing such schemes to establish whether they are really having the environmental affects originally intended is very problematic. The piece interestingly ends with the suggestion that offsetting may well have a short lifespan. Mainstream investment funds will very likely take over as the main backers of environmental schemes, which could solve many of the auditing and policing issues for would-be investors in offsetting.

The point appears to be that offsetting is a means to an end, not an end in itself. It will go some way to working out a real price for carbon, which many see as the next key stage in us really getting to grips with reducing emissions. Developer British Land, which declared its intention to go carbon neutral by 2009 partially via offsetting, underlined the point for me last week. "Carbon offsetting will benchmark emission reductions... It's a market mechanism for us," said chief executive Stephen Hester. The firm is focusing on reducing first, using renewables where it can't reduce and "as a last resort offset".

So offsetting seems a short term fix, and as yet not to be fully trusted or relied on for those seeking solace from their carbon sins.

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