If you go down to the woods today…

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Carbon conundrums

Offsets slot into the oil, coal and gas continuum – they do not challenge it. Some argue that offsets at least educate the public about their carbon emissions, but what exactly does it teach? That it is OK to fly and drive so long as you pay some third party a small fee to ease your conscience? That we can consume our way out of a problem caused by our consumption in the first place?

One company, Australian-based Climate Friendly, promises us that ‘in five minutes and for the cost of a cappuccino a week you can go climate neutral’ (1). Another, US-based Drive Neutral advertises that ‘for about the cost of a single tank of gas, you can neutralize your CO2 emissions for an entire year’ (2).

Many individuals and small organizations that buy offsets are probably eco-literate and do make other changes necessary to reduce their environmental impacts. But there are many that don’t. After all, if you truly believed that you were carbon neutral just for the cost of a cappuccino, what’s to stop you from flying for that weekend shopping trip to New York or Paris?

For those corporations fully dependent on and profiting from fossil fuels, offsets are a lifesaver. Oil giant BP has long been a carbon market enthusiast. A major investor in the World Bank’s carbon funds which sponsor dubious projects in the South, such as plantation projects in Brazil (see ‘Forest Fever’), BP now also offers Australian consumers its ‘Global Choice’ programme whereby the company offsets any of its petrol used to fill up your tank (3). At the same time, BP is well on the way towards completing its highly controversial pipeline spanning Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. The Baku-Ceyhan-Tbilisi pipeline has been criticised by Amnesty International for threatening human rights in the three countries. Campaigners also warn that the $5 billion dollar pipeline project will cause ‘far more than the pollution from every car, truck, bus and train in the UK’ in terms of carbon emissions (4).

Ford motor company has just launched its own offset initiative in partnership with US offsetter TerraPass (5). The average fuel economy for a Ford car is 18.8 miles per gallon. That’s last in US Environmental Protection Agency list of top six automakers (6). According to environmental studies professor Michael Dorsey of Dartmouth College in the US, ‘Ford is playing games and peddling gimmicks in its new partnership with TerraPass. If Ford wants to reduce CO2 and get serious about climate change it will increase its fleet’s overall miles per gallon (MPG) and not peddle spurious offsets based on cooked MPG numbers.’

Ford is also a member of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a US corporate think-tank that has just released a series of television commercials in the US dismissing the notion that climate change is a problem. ‘Carbon dioxide: THEY call it “pollution”, WE call it “life”,’ proclaim the adverts.

This is the carbon con. Offsets do little to challenge our consumption of fossil fuels. And if we are to avert the worst excesses of climate change, we must end our reliance on those fuels quickly. Offsets do not fundamentally challenge the huge inequities in the world. In fact, they sometimes make them worse. Offsetting doesn’t pressure companies to switch from fossil fuels to renewables or encourage governments to regulate polluting companies. It doesn’t stop airport runways being built, planes being flown, cars being driven or even coal-fired power plants being brought online. In fact, it encourages them to continue and expand. It feeds on the good intentions of consumers and ethical business so that the fossil-fuel industry can thrive.

Wild enthusiasm for the carbon market has fuelled investments in other Dyson-esque schemes such as emerging markets in ‘wetlands banking’ and ‘endangered species credit-trading’ (7). It is but one part of a vigorous attempt to marketize environmentalism itself and force us to rely on those markets rather than democratic institutions for our ‘solutions’. And it does nothing to solve climate change.

Carbon positive

Climate change is an issue we shouldn’t be ‘neutral’ on. Carbon offsets are at best a distraction and at worst a grandiose carbon laundering scheme. We need to grab hold of our responsibility for climate change and take action now. There is absolutely nothing wrong with funding renewables and even some well-designed and appropriate tree-planting projects. Just don’t equate them with a ‘license to pollute’. A ‘carbon positive’ agenda sees through the offset industry’s gambit and relies on a more fundamental commitment to solving climate change.

There are no easy answers. Solving climate change requires difficult choices to be made. But if seen in the context of wider social change, the movement is vast and strong. After all, there are vibrant global movements seeking to bring lasting and meaningful debt cancellation, end fossil fuel subsidies, reform the world trade system, and reinvigorate democratic control over our economies. Seen in this light, progress on any of these fronts has real benefits for the climate. According to Patrick Bond of the South African Centre for Civil Society, ‘If the World Bank were not holding the reigns on most Southern states’ monetary policy, more local fiscal resources could be used for renewables.’

The solution to climate change is social change. Tall order? Yes. Pipe dream? Perhaps. But it is ultimately what’s needed – and at least, seen from this perspective, we have a lot of friends and allies. After all, if Freeman Dyson can strike lucky with his wacky ideas, why can’t we?

Footnotes :

1. http://www.climatefriendly.com

2. http://www.driveneutral.com

3. http://www.bp.com.au/globalchoice/

4. http://www.bakuceyhan.org.uk/more_info/climatechange.htm

5. http://www.terrapass.com/ford/

6. Global Exchange, ‘Ford Can’t “Escape” Lowest EPA Fuel-Efficiency Ranking’, 4 August 2004.

7. http://www.globalexchange.org/war_peace_democracy/oil/2392.html

If you go down to the woods today…

Adam Ma’anit

The New Internationalist, Issue 391, July 2006.

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