Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Let’s go carbon neutral!

Channel 4 was severely criticized for its programme about the "Great Global Warming Swindle" and last night turned its attention to carbon offsetting. This was an altogether more balanced documentary and demonstrated that the ideas of carbon offsetting and carbon neutrality need to be approached with scepticism.

Many big names on the high street, including HSBC, Barclays, Sky and Marks and Spencer either claim to be carbon neutral or to be on the way to achieving that state. What does this mean? Every individual, household or organization causes a certain amount of carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas, to be emitted. The major trigger is energy; we all use energy and most of it is created from the combustion of fossil fuels – oil, gas or coal.

Organizations that want to be carbon neutral try and reduce their use of energy as far as possible. For the energy that they cannot avoid using, they deal with the emissions caused by buying offsets. For example, if a lorry travelling the length of the country day in and day out creates ten tons of carbon dioxide, planting a specified number of trees will cause that CO2 to be absorbed. The programme showed other offsetting projects: the pig farm where methane from the pig manure was trapped and prevented from escaping into the atmosphere; the hydroelectric power station in Eastern Europe which emits no CO2 at all. If an organisation buys enough offsets it can claim that the net effect is neutral - overall it is adding no CO2 to the global atmosphere.

The problem is that there are inconsistencies and imprecision at every stage of the process. To start with, you need to define exactly how much carbon dioxide is being emitted before you know how much you have to offset. There are no universally agreed standards and this can lead to farcical situations. If you want to offset the emissions created by your air travel, British Airways will sell you offsets provided by Climate Care. However, if you approach Climate Care directly to offset your flights, they will charge you more because they use a different method of calculation from British Airways and they believe that the emissions caused by flights are greater.

Suppose we have agreed on how much carbon dioxide needs to be offset. How effective are the proposed solutions? There is no doubt that trees absorb CO2 as they grow. It will, however, take several decades to absorb the CO2 that your flight emits in an afternoon. Some of the trees shown on the programme were far more heavily subsidized by the Forestry Commission than by the purchasers of offsets. If the trees would have been planted anyway, they cannot be considered as truly offsetting a particular purchaser’s emissions. There is also the problem that trees do not live for ever and while they may a lock up the carbon dioxide for a time, it will be released when the tree eventually dies and rots or is burnt. In any case, when you think of the hundreds of thousands of people in the UK who make flights every day, it is clear that trees cannot be the whole solution.

What about the hydroelectric power station in the Eastern Europe? Suppose the developer has the choice between a fossil fuel power station emitting CO2 and a hydro station which emits none. If this is a new development, building the hydro station avoids a certain amount of CO2 emissions, but it does not reduce emissions unless a fossil fuel station of the same size is closed down. There was no suggestion in the film that this was the case, (and by the way it seemed unlikely that the carbon offset payments made by Sky to the project had had any effect on whether it was going to be built or not.) The scheme does not appear to have reduced the global CO2 burden so it cannot be considered as an offset. Sky’s claim to be a carbon neutral organization is difficult to support.

As I said at the start, there is no clear universal definition of carbon footprints or carbon neutrality. Organizations can define them as they wish and can, in their own terms, claim to be carbon neutral. This is good marketing and attractive to responsible consumers. The problem is that it is doing practically nothing to reduce the CO2 in the atmosphere or to have any effect on climate change.

It is very much like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It may make people feel more comfortable and make them believe that something is being done about the dangers ahead. In fact there are icebergs ahead – only this time the problem is that they’re melting!

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