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Carbon offsetting: What you need to know

A valid way to reduce your carbon footprint or just a way to ease guilt? We outline the debate

Until recently, carbon offsetting was seen as a valid way to ease the conscience and show that a business is doing its bit for the environment. Unfortunately, those days are over, and the issue of carbon offsetting has joined biofuels in a sort of eco-limbo: good-intentioned but beginning to look more and more like a short-term solution to a problem which can’t be solved with quick fixes.

One of the main problems with offsetting is that many people confuse the meaning of the term. As Julie Gartside, an environmental consultant at Enviros, explains, it’s not just about paying to plant trees.

“The idea of an offset is that if a business is emitting 500 tonnes of co2 from its activities and it can’t reduce that any further, it can help somebody else reduce it on its behalf by either investing in a trading scheme to cancel allowances, or investing in a project in developing nations.

“So they can say to a village in a developing country, for example; you’ve got a dirty gas oil generator, so we’ll pay to put a wind turbine up for you – and that can make a carbon saving of 500 tonnes.”

The term is confusing, says Gartside, because many people assume that by offsetting their emissions, they are removing that carbon from the atmosphere. “From the world point of view, yes, it’s been offset and there isn’t a net increase, but there is still an emission,” she says.

Enron environmentalism

Some organisations agree: at the beginning of 2007, Greenpeace released a statement condemning government proposals to create a voluntary code of carbon offsetting. Charlie Kronick, head of Greenpeace’s climate and energy campaign, attacked the plans, calling carbon offsetting ‘Enron environmentalism’.

“The code will do little to protect the climate or make it easier for consumers to do the right thing, because offsets shift the responsibility for reducing our carbon footprint from Western governments to ordinary people in the developing world,” he said.

“Too often carbon offsetting is a neat accounting trick that does little to stop global warming.”

Gartside adds that some ‘carbon offsetting’ organisations have taken advantage of business owners’ goodwill. “Some people offer an offset project that was going to go ahead anyway, and the money that’s come in is funding profits,” she says.

The good news is that the government has responded to these threats and is working towards drafting guidelines for offsetting companies.

Reduce then offset

With all these criticisms, does offsetting have a place in modern business? Gartside says it does – provided you do everything you can to reduce your carbon footprint first.

“Reduce first, then offset – that’s accepted by everybody as a good thing to do,” she says.

Dominic Burbidge, sector account manager at The Carbon Trust, agrees. “If you’re going to offset, you need to employ it as part of a fully integrated carbon management strategy. There is no ‘it’s wrong’ or ‘it’s right’ – that’s a decision that has to be made by your business.”

Burbidge also warns that by offsetting your carbon emissions rather than reducing them, you are adding potentially unnecessary costs to your outgoings. “The fundamental point is why would you add costs to your business when there’s an opportunity to remove them?” he says.

So carbon offsetting, like alcohol, is good in moderation – useful as part of a well-balanced carbon management strategy, but if used merely as a way to cleanse the conscience, as good as useless.

 

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