Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Carbon Trade Watch - The Carbon Neutral Myth, Offset Indulgences for your Climate Sins

Just as it seems every politician, pop star, minor celebrity and even minor royal has started "offsetting" their round the world flights, climate campaigners at the Carbon Trade Watch (CTW) have brought out this brilliant short pamphlet to explain why Carbon Offsetting is actually making things worse.

On paper the idea is as simple as it is brilliant. You pay a company to "offset" the emissions you have made driving your SUV or flying across the Atlantic. This company takes your money and invests it in some project that absorbs Carbon Dioxide from the atmosphere or reduces emissions of Greenhouse gases. Often this means planting forests in the third world, though one project mentioned by CTW involved giving poor people in South Africa low energy light bulbs (the fact that this would have happened anyway, without the input of the Offset company doesn't stop them using it as a marketing ploy).

There are numerous problems with this approach. The first is the hard science - CTW explain how Offset Companies use a form of "Future Accounting". Similar to Enron's business practises they basically claim future emissions reductions against gas output today. The best example of this is the investment by a Offset company in a new forest. It takes trees a long time to absorb Carbon Dioxide. Say 100 years. But, if you have emitted CO2 into the atmosphere today and it won't actually be removed from the atmosphere for a century, you've made the problem worse. To balance the equation faster, you need more trees, which costs more, making it unlikely many people will do it.

There are other problems. What if the forest dies from lack of water as the world heats up? Or what if the local population, displaced by the government who wants the new trees planted because they benefit from further Carbon Credits under the Kyoto Agreement, burns the forest?

This exact situation certainly did happen as evicted peoples around Mount Elgon in Uganda resisted attempts by their government and Carbon Offset companies to make them pay, so that Westerners could continue to emit greenhouse gases.

Of course, all this is big business too. CTW document the massive profits made by Offset companies and show how it's good business sense for some of the worst polluting corporations in the world to link themselves to the offset market. It makes them look green, rather than force them to change business practices.

And this is the heart of the problem. Offsetting your emissions does nothing to encourage a change of behaviour. It allows politicians and corporations to put the responsibility for stopping climate change back on the individual, while they get off scot-free. Indeed it does more than that. As CTW point out, it turns the honest desires of millions of people to do something to save the planet, into "another market transaction". What could be more dis-empowering?

Luckily as CTW point out, there are things that can be done, most of them much more empowering than giving your cash to some Internet based pseudo green company.

There is much more in this little book (including an amusing chapter on the role of celebrities in promoting Carbon Offsetting and a good analysis of the failure of Live8 to bring change). But above all, it is a fantastic antidote to those who believe the market will solve the climate crisis we face.

You can download this book from Carbon Trade Watch's website as a PDF here, though I bought a copy from Bookmarks for £5.


Anonymous said...

In large part, trees created the atmosphere we are breathing now - so lets start planting them by the billion worldwide. We need to recreate the Carboniferous period again, and quickly. Trees are the only proven large scale carbon fixation device that humans can initiate quickly. Yes, trees take time to grow - but they will be doing their best work when the problem has only gotten worse. In the UK, we have oak beams in cathedrals 1500 years old that are still holding up the building and sequestering carbon.
We need farmers on poor uplands to become foresters, and build new towns and cities from the timber. Right tree - right place!

Resolute Reader said...

Unfortunately, it's not quite that simple. Trees planted in temperate latitudes can be shown to have no major impact, trees planted in equatorial areas are more important. However, it's not so simple as simply planting trees. The trees take a long time to absorb the carbon, and you can't guarentee that a forest fire won't release it all in the fast warming world we live in. (and you need a hell of a lot of oak wood beams to sequester enough carbon to offset our current emissions, even if they did it fast enough).

Our strategy must be to initially reduce our emissions massively, simultaneously as preventing the destruction and burning of existing forests. Tree planting, while well meaning, is often as the book argues a distraction, and in the case of badly managed forests can actually make the problem worse (see reports on Methane emissions from forests in the Guardian, Jan 2006 I believe).

Anyway, this is another reason the book is so important. I hope you get a chance to read it.