Is it time to learn to love carbon offsetting?
From a green point of view, one of the ‘controversial’ issues in The God Species is author Mark Lynas’ call for a revival in carbon offsetting. A decade ago, carbon offsetting was going to be the big climate saviour. Ordinary people and whole organisations could effectively neutralise their carbon emissions by buying into projects which would prevent a similar amount of carbon being emitted or, in the case of tree-planting, remove that amount of carbon from the atmosphere.
And then offsetting became a pariah. The God Species and my own The Green Executive give a remarkably similar* account of some of the bile that was levelled at offsetting from the green lobby – the most over-the-top simile was that it is like noblemen buying ‘indulgences’ to get themselves forgiven crimes such as rape or incest in the middle ages.
Lets get one thing straight – the problems with offsetting are not moral, but practical. Carbon emissions are a huge threat to the welfare of the inhabitants of this planet and we must use all practical means to address the problem. We already trade carbon in the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme and the UK’s Carbon Reduction Commitment, and the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD) programme is effectively offsetting on a grand scale, so why shouldn’t others be allowed to do it voluntarily? And, as Lynas points out, all that the greens have achieved is turning people from buying flights and offsets to just buying the flights – same emissions, no offsetting project. So where’s the environmental benefit of the demonisation, apart from an ego trip for the eco-righteous?
The main practical problem in offsetting is to ensure that the investment you make is actually cutting carbon over and above what would happen if you didn’t make the payment – known in the trade as ‘additionality’. The problem with additionality is how far you go in assessing whether the project (or an equivalent) would have cut that carbon anyway.
I’ll give an example. For a few years I was a director of Carbon Neutral North East, a charity whose goal was to use offsetting payments from citizens and businesses in the North East of England to develop low carbon projects in the region with the ultimate aim of neutralising the whole region’s emissions. We hit a number of problems, but what crippled the project was additionality. First, the WWF’s ‘gold standard’ for offsets emerged which said we shouldn’t fund projects in a Kyoto country like the UK as we would be helping the Government meet their obligations under the protocol (and…?). If we ignored the gold standard then we got tangled up in other issues – if our projects generated renewable energy, were we letting big power generators off the hook on their obligations? Tree planting was also getting a bad press. Eventually, demoralised after a serious breach of trust by one of our number, we gave up struggling with additionality, donated what cash we had to a programme to insulate the homes of the fuel poor, and closed the organisation down.
Despite this bad experience, I have always retained something of a soft spot for carbon offsetting. It is effectively a voluntary carbon tax ring-fenced for low carbon projects – a laudable idea. But whether you offset or not comes down to a preference of whether you want to fund someone else to cut carbon or use the money for your own carbon reduction initiatives.
If you do decide to go down the offsetting route, there are three ways you as an organisation can overcome the additionality complication:
1. Say “sod it” and invest in the project you like, treating it like a charitable donation to a good cause. This might be a contribution to woodland restoration or a worthwhile local project. However, you must never claim to have reduced your emissions in this way as you can’t guarantee it to be the case;
2. Invest in a project which has been assessed and passed as ‘additional’ by a third party eg the gold standard. Even with every safety net, I would strongly recommend always clearly distinguishing between actual carbon reductions and offset emissions – both in targets and reporting eg “we have reduced our emissions by 20% and offset the remainder.”
3. Use a scheme which buys up carbon allowances from carbon trading schemes and retires them (ie tears them up) so no-one else can use them. Dull, but effective – and you should follow the advice for 2.
The choice is yours, but never let anyone tell you what you are doing is immoral.
* My book was at the printers when Lynas’s was published so there is no scope for plagiarism in either direction, but remarkably we both quote George Monbiot, New Internationalist and CheatNeutral.org in the same order. Great minds etc.