They are the schemes that big business, governments and celebrities including the film star Leonardo DiCaprio employ to prove their commitment to the environmental cause and salve their first-world conscience.
But fresh controversy broke out yesterday over “carbon off-setting” projects after the government announced it was considering introducing an industry gold standard in an attempt to prevent cowboy operations taking advantage of people’s best intentions.
Just four out of more than 60 charities and private companies that offer UK consumers ways of cancelling carbon emissions from flights abroad, the daily commute and rich western lifestyles currently meet the government’s planned guideline.
But despite the attempt to introduce a semblance of order, anyone thinking about offsetting their emissions faced a confusing picture yesterday, with claims the regulations were too strict or not good enough.
And some environmentalists questioned the whole concept of offsetting, saying it was used as a “smokescreen” that allowed businesses and people in the developed world to carry on polluting while paying lip-service to fighting climate change.
They said cutting carbon emissions was far more important, and Greenpeace, among others, welcomed the announcement last night that Tesco had pledged to cut its emissions by at least 50 per cent by 2020.
The Environment Secretary, David Miliband, agreed offsetting “isn’t the answer to climate change”, adding that the first step “should always be to see how we can avoid and reduce emissions”.
He added: “However, some emissions can’t or won’t be avoided. That’s where offsetting has a role to play.
“People need to be sure that the way they offset is actually making a difference. The government’s standard and code of practice, with a quality mark so people can check before they choose an offsetting product, will help provide that certainty.
The lack of regulation or a recognised quality mark system has allowed poorly designed off-setting schemes to do more harm than good and left the area open to blatant abuse.
For example, a forestry company which cuts down an area of mature woodland could receive money designed to offset carbon emissions from a flight, even though it would have replanted the trees anyway and there will be a net gain of atmospheric carbon until the new forest reaches maturity in several decades.
And schemes to reduce emissions from landfill sites or fund green energy schemes might also have been paid for by industry or governments, so in some cases offsetting is not bringing a reduction in greenhouse gases but instead saving a country or business money which can be spent on something else.
The government’s suggestion, which Mr Miliband announced yesterday would be put out to public consultation, is to avoid these problems by giving official recognition to offsetting companies and charities which used the system of certified carbon credits, overseen by groups such as the United Nations’ Clean Development Mechanism, which issues “Certified Emission Reductions” (CERs).
However Silverjet, which bills itself as the world’s first airline to go completely carbon-neutral, expressed disappointment with the announcement, saying the system was designed for use by countries and meant small-scale schemes would not be recognised even if they were genuinely environmentally friendly and recognised by a different mechanism, known as “Verified Emission Reductions” (VERs).
Lawrence Hunt, chief executive of Silverjet, said: “Although we are pleased that the government is clearly committed to tackling the problems of carbon emissions, we do not believe this is the best way to generate take-up of offset schemes.
“VERs are more motivational for the consumer as they promote smaller-scale and community projects which encourage innovation and entrepreneurship in developing countries.
“An example is a solar panel programme in India – where solar panels replace kerosene burners. That’s better for health, the climate and local wealth.”
But while some in the carbon offsetting game complained the government standard would punish respectable schemes, environmentalists said the government’s scheme was wrong to include tree-planting schemes.
Dr Richard Dixon, of WWF Scotland, said the name clashed with an international offsetting “gold standard” it set up with other international groups.
“We are disappointed they are creating a great deal of confusion by talking about a ‘gold standard’.” he said. “They are suggesting setting up a UK gold standard, which means you would still be able to plant trees, but under strict criteria.
“The gold standard we helped set up specifically excludes tree-planting schemes. Our scheme only looks at renewable energy and energy efficiency.
“The offsetting the government does for travel is exactly like that – so they are proposing a standard that’s less than the government is already operating.”
And Friends of the Earth Scotland’s chief executive, Duncan McLaren, called into question the whole idea of offsetting.
“Too often, carbon offsetting schemes are being used as a smokescreen to avoid real measures to tackle climate change,” he said.
“We urgently need to cut our emissions, but offsetting schemes tend to encourage individuals, businesses and governments to avoid action and carry on polluting.”
The Carbon Trust gives advice to businesses and others on how to cut their emissions. James Wilde, its head of strategy, welcomed the government announcement as a step in the right direction, but said even “good quality offsetting” should be explored only “once all means to improve energy efficiency and reduce emissions at source have been exhausted”.
He said: “Only once you have reduced your own emissions and emissions associated with your product mix should one consider offsetting.”
The trust’s position on offsetting versus cutting emissions is telling. Mr Wilde said: “We don’t offset. We use our money to help businesses and the public sector reduce emissions.
“If we were to offset we’d be reducing the amount of money we can put to productive use reducing emissions in the UK.”
Store giant unveils plan to rate goods by carbon footprint
TESCO is planning to put a carbon footprint rating on every product it sells as part of a drive towards helping its customers “go green”.
The supermarket unveiled the move last night along with a pledge to put an aeroplane symbol on items transported by air and slash the price of energy-saving lightbulbs.
Sir Terry Leahy, the chief executive, promised that the firm, which accounts for £1 in every £8 spent on groceries in Britain, would lead a “revolution in sustainability”.
Among the proposals is the creation of a Sustainable Consumption Institute, which will commission the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University to identify the “carbon pressure points” in Tesco’s operations and supply chain.
Admitting he was an “unlikely campaigner” on climate change, Sir Terry told the charity Forum For The Future that he would help create a “low-carbon economy” in which comfort, activity and growth no longer depend on carbon.
“That is a monumental challenge,” he said in a speech last night. “It requires a revolution in technology and a revolution in thinking. We are going to have to re-think the way we live and work.”
Tesco aims to restrict air transport to less than 1 per cent of products, although it was unable last night to say what the current percentage was. More environmentally-friendly stores, such as the forthcoming branch at Wick in Caithness, are also expected, along with incentives for customers to go green by taking part in promotions through the Green Clubcard scheme.
Electrical goods that use less energy and “intelligent plugs”, which switch off when the appliance is not being used, will be among products involved.
John Sauven, director of Greenpeace UK, welcomed the announcement, saying: “The power this company has to shrink Britain’s carbon footprint is immense.
“But, ultimately, retailers will have to take serious measures, such as stopping selling old-style lightbulbs altogether, if we are to tackle the climate crisis.”
The move comes as dozens of high street names begin to reinvent themselves as “green”. For example, Marks & Spencer intends to reduce its carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2012 through using more renewable energy and doubling the amount of food sourced from the UK and Ireland within 12 months.
Peter Madden, the chief executive of Forum for the Future, said Tesco’s plans were “groundbreaking”.
YOUR QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS: COMPENSATING FOR ACTIONS
WHAT IS OFFSETTING?
Offsetting is a way of compensating for emissions produced with an equivalent carbon saving, lessening the impact of a consumer’s actions. Consumers can offset a particular activity, such as a flight abroad, or their emissions over a period of time – such as their annual car mileage or across their entire lifestyle or business, including all the gas and electricity they will use in their lifetime as well as their emissions from transport.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
Carbon offsetting involves calculating emissions, then buying equivalent credits from emission reduction projects that have prevented or removed the emission of an equivalent amount of somewhere else.
Basically, if you produce a tonne of carbon, you can help fund a wind farm scheme, an energy efficiency scheme or other initiative that cuts carbon emissions by one tonne.
IS IT THE ANSWER TO CLIMATE CHANGE?
No. The message from government and environmentalists is that we all need to reduce our use of energy and greenhouse gas emissions. Offsetting should minimise the effect of unavoidable emissions and not seen as a way to carry on as usual. Friends of the Earth said it risked promoting the mindset “I’ve offset, so it’s OK to fly or drive to work.”
HOW CAN I DO IT?
Organisations such as Equiclimate, which meets the government’s standards, offer an internet-based service where businesses and people can calculate their carbon emissions and then pay by credit card to offset them.
OFFSETTING: THE PROBLEMS
OFFSETTING is accomplished in a number of ways:
“¢ PLANTING TREES: Planting trees is perhaps the most controversial method. The idea is that as the tree grows it absorbs carbon from the atmosphere and “breathes” out oxygen.
But there are a number of problems: what is billed as tree planting could actually be replanting of a recently felled forest; it can disturb carbon trapped in the soil and scientists found that planting trees at northern latitudes can actually increase global warming, as forests have a warming effect that can be greater than the effect from absorbing carbon.
“¢ ENERGY EFFICIENCY: This basically involves paying for schemes to reduce energy use in countries that cannot afford to do so themselves.
It includes buying low-energy lightbulbs and more efficient machinery, anything from major pieces of equipment used by heavy industry, particularly in countries like Poland and Romania, to modern wood-burning stoves that use much less wood than traditional ones for the third world. The problem is ensuring that this would not have been done by the company or government itself.
“¢ RENEWABLE ENERGY: Rapidly developing countries, China and India in particular, rely heavily on coal-fired power stations and are reluctant to listen to lectures about climate change from developed countries that caused the problem in the first place. Using carbon offsets to pay for solar power, windfarms and other schemes can help to reduce their reliance on carbon-emitting power stations. Providing small-scale, local electricity schemes also means less infrastructure is needed to connect people to the grid.
By Ian Johnston
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