Carbon-offsetting: All credit to them

Some dismiss carbon-offsetting as a way of buying a clear conscience. These Indian farmers disagree. James Hopkirk sees how Western 'guilt money' transformed their lives

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In the remote village of Bannapur, in northern India, Ram Dyal shows me the tiny patch of farmland from which he scrapes a living. This arid plot, less than an acre, must produce enough vegetables to feed his wife and four children, and, hopefully, something to sell on market day.

It is a hand-to-mouth existence at the best of times, but in the dry season, when temperatures soar to 46C and his land is reduced to little more than a dust bowl, he faces a stark choice. Either he must hire an expensive diesel pump to irrigate his land, or move his family to the city, where they will live on the street while he looks for labouring work.

But that changed six months ago when he bought a treadle pump. This cheap, remarkably simple device, invented in Bangladesh, enables Dyal to farm his land all year round. Constructed from bamboo, plastic and steel, it operates like a step machine in a gym and draws groundwater for irrigation from a depth of 30ft, even in the height of summer.

These pumps are revolutionising subsistence farming in India - thanks, in part, to airline passengers from the UK. For farmers such as Ram Dyal, the benefits are simple: more produce to sell and no need to go to the city. But for Climate Care, the British firm that has helped to distribute some 500,000 treadle pumps in India, the added environmental benefit is the decline of the polluting diesel pump.

So, where do airline passengers fit into the equation? As price wars between airlines hot up, demand for cheap flights is higher than ever, and air travel has become one of the fastest-growing causes of global warming. Aircraft currently account for 5.5 per cent of UK emissions, but with the number of flights leaving our runways predicted to more than double in the next 20 years, that figure can only rise.

Based in Oxford, Climate Care is in the carbon-offsetting business. That means, for an optional fee, it claims that it can compensate for the carbon dioxide that you emit when you jet off on holiday. It puts your cash towards carbon-cutting projects in the developing world, and, according to the company, just £2 will ensure that your return flight to Florence is carbon neutral, and £11 for a return flight to New York.

"We give people the opportunity to repair their impact on the climate," says Climate Care's managing director Tom Morton. But this is business, not charity, as Morton explains. "We're trying to get away from the idea that taking account of your greenhouse gases is a charitable act," he says. "We're providing a service - ultimately, we see ourselves as a waste-management organisation."

Climate Care was set up in 1998 by Mike Mason, a healthcare entrepreneur and convert to the environmental cause, to find realistic, sustainable solutions to climate change. Rather than set up a charity, he decided to create a company without shareholders, with Morton in charge. "We didn't want to be a fully for-profit company," explains Morton, "because we wanted to remove that conflict between doing the best for the environment and making a financial return."

All the projects that they work on are in developing countries. "We aren't funding projects in countries that have targets to reach under the Kyoto Protocol," he says, "because if we were doing something in the UK, the way the system works currently, we'd simply be helping the Government to reach its target. We wouldn't be doing anything extra."

And, unlike some of their competitors, they don't focus on tree-planting schemes, which are a controversial source of offsets - the potential for forest fires or changes in local anti-logging laws can make them an uncertain prospect. Instead, they look for renewable-energy projects and invest in environmentally friendly technology. With the treadle pump project, they have been helping a local charity, International Development Enterprises India (IDEI), to set up a market for the pumps - rather than just giving handouts - with manufacturers, distributors, installers and farmers all benefiting.

"Saying to the farmer, 'You've got to do this because it will reduce greenhouse gases', doesn't work," says Morton. "They have to have a reason to use the treadle pump and a feeling of engagement and ownership over it rather than just being given something."

But it's not only with charities that Climate Care works. In Chandigarh, also in northern India, it is supporting the inventor Ramesh Nibhoria. While in Britain, Jamie Oliver's crusade for healthy school dinners is front-page news, Nibhoria has taken on the less-publicised mission of ensuring that school meals in India are served "carbon neutral". The food, typically vegetable curries and chapattis, is healthy enough, but is usually cooked using liquid petroleum gas (LPG) - a carbon-emitting fossil fuel. And LPG stoves can be dangerous: in 2004, a school in southern India burnt down, killing more than 200 children, when a stove blew up.

Nibhoria has designed an oven that is fuelled by briquettes made only from farmers' crop waste, a renewable source of energy. As a result, schools have safe fuel and lower bills, and farmers can sell their waste products. The environmental benefit is that the stoves don't affect the balance of CO2 in the atmosphere (the crops absorbed CO2 while growing, and the waste would have been burnt anyway). But, at first, Nibhoria could only afford to build three ovens a year because the schools paid him in instalments. Banks wouldn't help, which is why Climate Care stepped in. With working capital from it, he can now build 50 a year while still offering the schools credit. Climate Care is supporting similar projects throughout the developing world, from Uganda to Kazakhstan.

However, critics argue that middle-class Westerners paying to clear their environmental consciences is no good if they don't actually change the way their lives impact on the planet. Kirsty Clough, climate-change officer for WWF, sits on Climate Care's steering committee to offer independent advice. She says that the first priority should be cutting emissions: "The voluntary market in offsets is growing rapidly, but we'd like to see people make emissions reductions first, like cutting down the amount they fly, maybe taking alternative forms of transport. Then we'd like them to offset the rest of their emissions."

Morton agrees that direct reductions must come first, but says that it's important to be realistic. "Some environmentalists beat people with a stick and say the only solution is to wear a hair shirt," he says, "but that's proven not to work. We want to give people positive choices. If someone's chosen to fly, I'd rather they offset their emissions than not."

So, how do you go about offsetting your carbon emissions? At the moment, you can go to Climate Care's website ( www.climatecare.org), where you type in your destination and it calculates your carbon debt, and how much you need to pay. Other online offsetting organisations include the Carbon Neutral Company and Carbon Footprint (see box). And soon, you'll be able to do it on the high street. The Co-operative Group's Travelcare now offers offsetting as part of its holiday booking process, and by the end of 2007, it will be available at all of its 340 branches.

But it's still early days. "You're looking at a few thousands of individuals a year doing it now," says Tom. "But that figure is going up as people become more aware of climate change." Back in Bannapur, the advantages of carbon offsetting are more straightforward. "My harvest has doubled since I got the pump," Ram tells me. "Now I can buy my children school books."

Carbon-offsetting projects around the world

Climate Care ( www.climatecare.org) currently supports a dozen projects in the developing world, working with charities and environmental entrepreneurs.

These include a scheme in Mexico where it is helping tortilla vendors make the switch to efficient cookers; installing energy-saving lighting at schools in Kazakhstan and clean-burning stoves in low-income households in Honduras; a forestry scheme in a Ugandan national park; and helping to fund two giant wind turbines in southern India.

The London-based Carbon Neutral Company ( www.carbonneutral.com) is backing a mix of forestry and energy-efficiency initiatives in 14 countries around the globe. Its portfolio features solar-powered lighting projects in Sri Lanka and India; tree-planting in Bhutan; energy-saving heating at schools in Ukraine; efficient cookers in Eritrea; hydropower generation in Bulgaria; and excess methane capturing from coal mines in the US.

Carbon Footprint ( www.carbonfootprint.com) has a tree-planting operation in Kenya; and also enables people to plant trees in any UK county for £10. It is expanding internationally, and is looking to take on renewable-energy projects in India and South Africa.

And with its snappy slogan, "You fly - we plant", it's hardly surprising that Treeflights ( www.treeflights.com) focuses on forestry. It plants at three sites in Wales, at a fixed rate of £10 for a single flight, £20 for a return.

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