Michael Willoughby explores the theory and practice behind offsetting. And he discovers wildly differing costs for a return flight to Malaga from the price of a latte to a hardback book.
Those of us jetting off on our summer hols might be hoping to allay some guilt by purchasing carbon offsetting from airlines or other outside agencies. The process, whereby consumers ‘purchase’ carbon expended through our energy-hungry lifestyles goes towards schemes such as reforestation and purchasing low carbon technology for people in the developing world, is the closest we have to a consumer carbon tax.
And the market is expanding wildly. New Carbon Finance, an analyst firm, said the amount paid for voluntary contributions in 2007 was $331m, up from just $97m a year before.
Ethical?There’s still widespread discussion about the viability of the process. In February, the government announced the introduction of a voluntary standard for offset schemes in response to calls that the schemes be regulated.
Some still aren’t convinced. Friends of the Earth, along with a number of other organisations, says it is becoming concerned that the practice is being used as a smoke-screen to ward off legislation and delay the urgent action needed to cut emissions and develop alternative low-carbon solutions.
It says: “Offsets can even encourage businesses and people to continue with (or even increase) unnecessary polluting activities, promoting the mindset 'I’ve offset so it’s OK to fly', 'I’ve offset so it’s alright to drive to work' etc.”
Offsets can even encourage businesses and people to continue with (or even increase) unnecessary polluting activities, promoting the mindset 'I’ve offset so it’s OK to fly'
Friends of the Earth
But clearly, properly regulated, offsetting is better than, say, building a coal-fired power station in Kent, so we thought we would look at a few of the options offered to us when we purchased a return fare from Gatwick to Malaga, a 3,300km round trip…
Offset 1Best-known offset company, Climate Care gives a straight £3.30 figure for the journey. Their portfolio of funding recipients includes wind power projects in China, efficient cooking stoves in Uganda and the controversial treadle pumps in India, which the Times said was causing ‘eco-enslavement.’ They don’t fancy reforestation since single-species planting can cause eco-system meltdown.
Offset 2The EasyJet tariff, a similar £3.45 goes, they say, only to UN-certified emissions reductions projects. The airline slammed ‘snake-oil salesmen’ in the trade back in 2007, pointing out that up to 30% of the amount could be taken out for ‘administrative costs. They don’t use a middleman.
Offset 3BA, however, use Morgan Stanley. What is soon to be ‘La línea aérea preferida en el mundo,’ has slapped a £8 tariff on our flight.
Offset 4Things get a bit complicated with The Carbon Neutral Company. Their selection of different products reminds one of the essentially charitable nature of the enterprise. Their bargain ‘futures portfolio’ invests in ‘bringing about new technologies,’ such as a wind farm in Turkey. Perhaps the lower price can be accounted for by remembering that projects are far cheaper to get off the ground in developing countries. If you are really feeling cheap, though, for the price of a latte, £1.80, you can help get two China projects off the ground. These are a hydroelectric project – worrying for those of us who know about the Chinese regime’s troubled relationship to its important rivers – and a more reassuring waste-recovery project, also in China. But why pay less? This isn’t the January sales, people!
Investment in these types of technologies surely brings down installation and production costs (at least in the longer term); drives skills up immediately and ensures there’s continued industry and entrepreneurial interest in the sector
Offset 5CO2 Balance.com is geared towards the corporate customer and, as such, doesn’t offer a calculator down to our piddly Spanish holiday level. But for £15 you can offset carbon emissions up to two tonnes. Rather satisfyingly you also get to click a button to choose your project. But is this wise? Is the African Energy Efficiency project always going to lose out to the plantation of a woodland in Cumbria?
Offset 6CarbonFootprint.com takes the gift aid approach. It will calculate your carbon like the others and offer you a no-frills £3.51 into a clean energy fund supporting carbon reduction projects around the world. But if you give £7 (not much in comparison with the minimum £100 you’re spending on the flight) you can help a worthwhile replanting of native broadleaved trees in the Rift Valley, Kenya. Or you can spend a wee bit more (£11.75) planting trees here in the UK. Of course, we are getting into the realm of the arbitrary here, but why scrimp? It’s voluntary anyway.
Offset 7The Clean Planet Trust funds projects in the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) whereby western companies fund carbon mitigating projects in the developing world. It’s the most expensive ‘calculated’ amount at £12.08, but when you read the list of projects - a crop waste power plant in India and renewable energy and forest planting in Brazil – it would take a churlish person to object to carbon offsetting in practice.
Is it worth it?While FoE and Greenpeace are right – of course we need renewable power yesterday – perhaps they have missed a trick. Investment in these types of technologies surely brings down installation and production costs (at least in the longer term); drives skills up immediately and ensures there’s continued industry and entrepreneurial interest in the sector. And – if one takes the long view - that can only make low-to-zero carbon technologies more viable for the rest of the world.
Which one would you choose? Or do you belive offsetting is a cop-out? Comment below or discuss it further at our Building Sustainability Forum