Carbon offsets deliver where it matters

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The backlash against carbon offsetting could whip away funds from some ground-breaking projects in Asia and Africa, says Martin Wright. In this week’s Green Room, he argues that criticism of projects which allow people to offset their emissions fails to look at the bigger picture.

Trashing all offsets in the name of ecological correctness just plays to the very worst of British cynicism.

Remember when carbon offsets were cool? When everyone from Coldplay to Fifa banged on about their carbon neutrality?

Now you can hardly mention them without incurring a great howl of derision. Almost overnight, offsets have slumped from being a dream solution to the mother of all futile gestures.

Columnists compare them derisively to indulgences flogged to medieval sinners to shorten their time in purgatory – whoever first came up with that clunking metaphor should be claiming royalties, so often has it been recycled in the last few months.

Everyone – activist and amateur alike – weighs in to give them a good kicking. Buy an offset, they say, and you’re just buying complacency, a guilt-free pass to carry on as normal.

To an extent, it’s all rather inevitable. Offsets had been over-hyped for years. Some of them – the early forestry ones in particular – were always prone to accusations of flakiness.

‘Ecological correctness’

Of course it’s always more effective to curb emissions at source than try to soak them up later or stop them happening elsewhere.

But to stick the knife into offsets with such relish, just when they’re starting to gain common currency, is a touch perverse.

Inspiration which comes from knowing that you’ve helped a woman in Nepal get a biogas cook-stove, freeing her from walking three hours a day to fetch firewood

Most people out there aren’t champing at the bit to make revolutionary lifestyle changes, much as the activist might wish. But they’re more than happy to make some small payment in return for a dose of feel-good.

To them, it’s pretty unimportant whether or not this totally and utterly neutralises their carbon. They just want to do something useful.

To trash that in the name of ecological correctness plays to the very worst of British cynicism.

Why? Because rather than drop offsets and take the train instead, many will use the backlash as a trigger to do nothing at all.

Like those who smugly refused to give money to Oxfam because they knew “the aid didn’t really get through”, they’ll have the perfect excuse for inertia.

Take your average Land Rover driver, quietly pleased that his miles have been offset thanks to a deal his company struck with offsetting organisation, Climate Care. Then he reads that it’s all a con.

So he thinks: “Hang on, this offset stuff isn’t all it seems… I need to do more, much more“, and so the scales fall from his eyes. He gives up his car, gets on his bike and stops flying to his weekend pad in the Mediterranean. Get real, it isn’t going to happen.

Contrary to the activists’ rhetoric, people who offset their air miles don’t, as a rule, end up flying further, smug in the knowledge they’ve atoned for their sins. At worst, their impact stays the same. More often, they reduce it.

For many who are otherwise untouched by green concerns, offsets can be a relatively painless gateway to more significant actions – rather than a forbidding door marked “Abandon cars all ye who enter here“.

That, at least, is what the surveys seem to show. Now admittedly, the only ones available are carried out by offset companies themselves – who arguably would say that, wouldn’t they? So there is an urgent need for some independent research to establish whether – and how much – offsets have a knock-on effect.

Counting the carbon

Meanwhile, stung by the accusations of flakiness, the government has announced that it is going to impose a new “gold standard” to make offset projects’ carbon accounting more rigorous.

Which is all well and good – but the first indications were that “rigorous” would be interpreted as something along the lines of the rather bureaucratic system adopted by the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism.

It would be a shame indeed if projects such as these were stigmatised as somehow second class or smeared out of fashion by a media backlash.

In practice, this means your “gold” offset would fund one-millionth of the cost of cleaning up one of hundreds of Chinese coal power stations.

It might be logical, but it’s hardly seductive.

The word now is that the government is having a rethink – and quite right, too. There’s a need for rigour, sure, but it would be a shame if that came at the price of inspiration.

The sort of inspiration which comes from knowing that you’ve helped a woman in Nepal get a biogas cook-stove, freeing her from walking three hours a day to fetch firewood from dwindling forests, and then spending the rest of her waking hours in a kitchen filled with enough woodsmoke to give her and her kids chronic lung disease for life.

The inspiration that comes from hearing how you’ve enabled a Bangla family swap their dirty, dim kerosene lamp for clean solar light.

Or from learning that you’ve helped install a simple treadle pump which allows poor Indian farmers to grow crops throughout the dry season – so avoiding the need to uproot their families, taking their kids out of school, in search of sporadic work as day-labourers on building sites in cities far from home.

These are the sort of projects, funded by small-scale, voluntary offsets, which can make a tangible difference both to carbon levels, and the quality of life of some of the world’s poorest people – none of whom give a damn whether they’ve precisely balanced your emissions or not.

Each of them are among the winners of an Ashden Award for Sustainable Energy, which focuses on schemes which simultaneously tackle climate change and poverty.

It would be a shame indeed if projects such as these were stigmatised as somehow second class or smeared out of fashion by a media backlash.

In time, there might be a genuinely global carbon market, where these transactions happen seamlessly, driving down carbon emissions as they drive up the price.

Meanwhile, it’s surely better to replace a single kerosene lamp with a solar light, than to sit there, principles intact, cursing the darkness.

BBC News, July 23rd, 2007.

Martin Wright

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