Is carbon offsetting a help or hindrance in tackling climate change?
Duncan Clark | November 2008 issue
Steve and Lisa met while on holiday in Spain, and quickly fell head over heels for each other. That Christmas, at a party, Steve got drunk and unavoidably repeatedly cheated on Lisa with Cheri, a co-worker. He paid CheatNeutral just $5 and we invested his money in Alex, a single man with no prospect of finding a partner. In return for the payments, Alex agreed to remain single.”
This happy scenario was made possible by the good people at CheatNeutral, an organization that parodies carbon offsetting by offering a comparable service for those looking to cancel out their infidelity. “When you cheat on your partner you add to the heartbreak, pain and jealousy in the atmosphere,” co-founders Beth Stratford, Alex Randall and Christian Hunt write on the site. “CheatNeutral offsets your cheating by funding someone else to be faithful and not cheat. This neutralizes the pain and unhappy emotion and leaves you with a clear conscience.”
CheatNeutral recognizes “we should all try to reduce the amount we cheat on our partners, but we also realize that fidelity isn’t always possible.” So the site funds monogamy-boosting projects by putting money on faithful or just plain single people, thereby cancelling out the damage your cheating heart has done.
CheatNeutral is clearly a spoof. But many people have argued that carbon offsetting—the increasingly popular practice of “neutralizing” the carbon footprint of an activity or product by paying others to reduce emissions elsewhere—is just about as effective.
British journalist and author George Monbiot has compared carbon offsets to the ancient Catholic Church’s practice of selling indulgences—absolution for sins, and reduced time in Purgatory, in return for donations to the collection box. Carbon offsets allow us to “buy complacency, political apathy and self-satisfaction,” Monbiot has claimed. “Our guilty consciences appeased, we can continue to fill up our SUVs and fly round the world without the least concern about our impact on the planet. … Buying and selling carbon offsets is like pushing the food around on your plate to create the impression that you have eaten it.”
Not everyone takes such a hard line. Many in the environmental movement believe offsetting can play a valid role in the transition to a lower-carbon future. And growing numbers of green-minded consumers offset the emissions of their flights, cars or homes through services such as TerraPass, CarbonFund or Climate Care. These groups enable you to calculate the emissions caused by an activity or trip and invest your money in projects designed to reduce future emissions (through green power generation or energy efficiency) or absorb CO2 (through the planting of trees).
Increasingly, products are available with carbon neutrality as part of the package. These range from books about environmental topics (such as The Rough Guide to Climate Change, the publisher of which offset the paper, printing and distribution for the book) to cars (Volkswagen includes offsets for a certain amount of mileage in the price of new cars).
But many consumers and commentators have concerns about whether the offset schemes deliver what they promise. Though offsetting has grown enormously in the past few years, it remains largely unregulated. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is worried some green claims may be not be credible, with offsetting creating, in the words of agency chairwoman Deborah Platt Majoras, “heightened potential for deception.”
Similar concerns have been raised in the UK, where the Advertising Standards Agency recently upheld complaints that British Gas had misled consumers with its offset-based “zero carbon” energy tariff. And in Australia, Jeff Angel, director of the Total Environment Centre, last year described offsetting as “an utterly confusing and chaotic industry.”
Press reports of failed or ineffective projects (and rather a lot of hearsay) have increased suspicion. There have been tales of wilting forests in India, for example, and offset schemes helping fund carbon-zapping renewable-energy projects that would have happened anyway. Such stories have caused some in the green movement to describe offsetting as not just ineffective or unhelpful, but a swindle—and even a target for protests. Last year, eco-activist Tony Cottee and others from the campaign group London Rising Tide occupied the premises of a leading offset provider—the CarbonNeutral Company—erecting banners that read “Carbon Offset, Climate Upset.” Part of the aim was also to “expose offsetting as a business-as-usual solution,” Cottee says, and “reveal that many offset projects are a scam.”
Like George Monbiot, Cottee believes offsetting is a way to assuage guilt and delay reassessing unsustainable lifestyles. People feel they can keep their SUVs, this type of reasoning goes, as long as they fork over cash for offsets. Nonsense, says Michael Buick of Climate Care. “Unless you can show that offsetting damages emissions cuts, then the argument doesn’t stack up.” He adds that offset providers encourage people to reduce their emissions directly as well as to offset. “Reduce and offset. They go hand-in-hand. You wouldn’t give people an opportunity to recycle because you thought it might be a disincentive to buy less packaging.”
Adam Stein of TerraPass agrees. “People who voluntarily spend money to fund greenhouse gas reductions are quite motivated to reduce their impact in other ways as well,” he says, pointing to a survey showing TerraPass customers are far greener than many of their peers, with 24 percent cycling to work (22 times the U.S. national average) and 16 percent driving hybrids (seven times the national average). The survey excluded flying, however, perhaps the single most carbon-intensive consumer activity and the one that’s most commonly offset.
The TerraPass site, incidentally, features a blog entry in which the company’s founder, Tom Arnold, discusses the guilt he feels being awarded Elite status by Continental Airlines for being such a frequent flier. The site also asks, “Do you own or fly in private jets? Did you know that one hour in a Gulfstream GV burns about as much fuel as one year of driving? We can design a custom offset for your jet travel.” Can offsetting private jets really count as part of encouraging reduced emissions?
Ultimately, the validity of offsetting comes down to individuals. If you offset to avoid changing your eco-unfriendly ways, that’s bad; if you offset as part of cutting your footprint or to motivate yourself to be greener, that’s good—especially if the offset projects offer extra benefits such as poverty reduction in the developing world. But the question remains: How do you know your money has the desired effect?
“All our projects are audited by a third party, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and on our website is a public registry of all our offset projects, so anyone can go and check them out,” says Sharon Corrigan of the CarbonNeutral Company. Moreover, most leading offset companies assure customers that guaranteed carbon savings don’t rely on the success of a single project. Should one tree-planting initiative in Kenya fail, for example, another one in Ghana will offset your emissions.
Then there’s the question of standards. “You go to 10 offset websites,” activist Cottee says, “and you get 10 different claims for how much carbon your flight emits. There are no standards. You can’t tell who’s better than anyone else.” It’s true that offset companies calculate emissions for the same flights differently. But that’s inevitable, since there’s no scientific consensus on the global-warming impact of aviation. Carbon-dioxide emissions are easy to measure, but the effect of other high-altitude exhaust gases—such as water vapor (which leads to cirrus clouds) and nitrous oxides (which can create ozone)—are complex. Even the time of day matters.
As for standards, generally, if there’s confusion it’s not because there aren’t any standards but because there are so many. According to the TerraPass site, “Every project is conducted and verified according to one of the following appropriate standards: Voluntary Carbon Standard 2007, Green-e Climate, Chicago Climate Exchange Offset Protocols, California Climate Action Registry, EPA Climate Leaders, ISO 14064-2 and Gold Standard.” Huh? To add to the confusion, some offset companies have invented their own standards—such as the CarbonNeutral Company’s “CarbonNeutral Protocol” and certain countries are looking to introduce national benchmarks too.
So what do all these standards mean? And which offers the most robust assurances that the offsets will perform as promised? “The most important aspect of any standard is additionality,” says Ron Dembo, founder and CEO of Zerofootprint and author of Everything You Wanted to Know About Carbon Offsetting But Were Afraid to Ask. Dembo defines additionality as an offsetting company’s ability to ensure that the carbon savings happen because of the offset. If an offset contributes to the construction of a wind farm, say, but the wind farm would have gone ahead without the offset contribution, that’s not additional. Additionality isn’t something consumers can take for granted. For example, Dembo says the Chicago Climate Exchange doesn’t require additionality.
Two standards that do are the Voluntary Gold Standard (VGS) and the Voluntary Carbon Standard (VCS). Climate Care’s Buick explains that VGS-certified offsets are audited according to the rules of the Clean Development Mechanism (the carbon-trading system built into the Kyoto Protocol), and must also show social benefits for local communities. The VCS, meanwhile, was launched in November of last year and aims to be just as rigorous as the VGS without being too expensive or bureaucratic, allowing a greater range of innovative small-scale projects. Offsets with these standards may be slightly more expensive, but they’re also more credible, which has caused some corporate offsetters to insist on them.
There’s also the question of whether an offset project focuses on energy or tree-planting. Many observers are skeptical of trees on the grounds they can take decades to achieve the promised carbon savings, and the savings only last as long as the forest stays alive. If the trees are burned or rot, then the carbon they captured in their branches and foliage will escape back into the atmosphere. For forests planted in the developing world, concerns have also been raised about pressure on local land and water supplies. Carbon Trade Watch, a campaign group focusing on carbon markets, has reported on local people who were displaced from a Ugandan national park that became the home of an offset-funded forest.
For these reasons, tree-planting has become controversial, and many offset bodies focus exclusively on renewable energy. Dembo thinks this is misguided. “Planting new forests is the only viable mechanism that we have for actually taking carbon out of the atmosphere,” he says. “It is right to criticize a forest protection or reforestation project that ignores the interests of local people. But it is not inevitable, and it is not justified to condemn all projects.”
Another reason certain offset providers favor energy projects is they can choose ones that offer obvious social as well as environmental benefits. Take Climate Care, for which a typical project involves distributing energy-efficient stoves in Honduras. As well as directly reducing fuel use, therefore emissions, the stoves improve health and quality of life by limiting local pollutants such as smoke, a huge killer in the developing world. In addition, since less wood is required, pressure on local forests is reduced. The projects are VGS- or VCS-certified, too.
While traditional offset companies continue to hone their standards and refine their projects, a series of second-generation organizations is putting a new spin on the offset game. For example, The Converging World will use offsetters’ money to build wind farms in India. They’ll then sell the resulting carbon credits to companies committed to reducing emissions, and work with them to ensure they achieve their carbon cuts. Finally, they’ll take the money raised by selling the credits and spend it on educating Westerners about the need to cut their carbon footprints.
Another model is CoolEarth. While debates about tree planting look set to run and run, everyone agrees that avoiding the destruction of existing forests is critical. Tropical deforestation, after all, is responsible for about one-fifth of global greenhouse emissions—more than is produced by the U.S. CoolEarth doesn’t describe itself as an offset scheme, but it takes donations and uses them to buy critically endangered rainforest. The land is donated to a local trust, with local people employed as forest stewards. The charity reckons that protecting a single acre, at a cost of about $150, can cancel more than 200 tons of CO2 emissions. The same money spent via a typical offset scheme would save something closer to 10 tons.
As for the future, if officials legislate to slash global emissions to safe levels, there might not be any need for carbon offsetting. But that doesn’t look likely, at least not in the short term.
In the meantime, each of us will have to decide whether offsetting is a valid way to reduce our collective environmental footprint or simply a license, as the folks at CheatNeutral would tell us, for ecological philandering.