Michael McCarthy: Are carbon offsets an excuse to carry on polluting?

Why change the Chelsea tractor if you feel you've cancelled out its malign effects?


It's not a new idea, in essence. In Anglo-Saxon England it was known as Danegeld: you pay money to somebody else in order to have an easy life. In Aethelred the Unready's time, you paid marauding Vikings so that your land might not be laid waste; today you pay a carbon offset company so that your conscience about helping to cause climate change may be similarly undamaged.

The principle is the same. You don't have to do anything else; you just pay the money and sleep easy, be you an Anglo-Saxon farmer, or the 21st century driver of a Chelsea tractor whose exhaust emissions are pouring into the atmosphere daily. And my goodness, is it proving popular. As the concern about global warming steadily increases, carbon offsetting is everywhere.

Carbon offsetting means buying reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide, the principle greenhouse gas, to neutralise, the CO2 emissions you have been responsible for, in driving your car for a year, or in taking long-haul (or indeed, short-haul) flights. These reductions can, theoretically, come from a number of sources: planting trees, which absorb carbon dioxide as they grow; renewable energy projects such as wind farms, which do not produce CO2 at all (and so would effect a great reduction if they replaced a coal-fired power station, for example); or installing energy-saving technology.

The beauty of the idea is that you don't have to find any of these projects yourself, or go through the tiresome business of checking whether they really are effecting reductions in greenhouse gases: a company does that for you. You just hand over a quickly calculated amount of cash to the firm concerned, often with a click of a mouse, and hey presto, your carbon emissions have been neutralised. As the late Tommy Cooper would have said: Just like that! Carry on driving and flying as much as you like, and feel you're not damaging the planet. You feel great, you feel worthy, your environmental sins have been absolved.

The simplicity of the act of offsetting and the instant moral benefits have sparked a huge offsetting boom (and a market worth enormous sums): many of the biggest British companies, keen to exhibit their corporate social responsibility, are now offseting as much of their activities as possible, with the aim of going "carbon-neutral". In August, BP launched its "targetneutral" offsetting website aimed at the general motorist, while more and more holidaymakers are choosing to offset their flights.

To cavil at such evidence of environmental responsibility might seem churlish, but increasingly, there are concerns about the emphasis on offsetting. The initial worry has been about the initial idea, planting trees, which has been used extensively by such offsetting firms as Britain's The CarbonNeutral Company (formerly Future Forests).

The difficulty is that it is not easy to calculate just how much CO2 a tree may absorb in the course of its lifetime (and remember that it is the lifetime that counts, although the flight you have just neutralised may have lasted only three hours). What happens if the tree concerned becomes diseased, or is logged, or is burnt in a forest fire? Then the CO2 it has absorbed will be released back into the atmosphere. As global warming takes hold in the 21st century, much forest may die back anyway - this has already been predicted for the Amazon in the 2040s - and trees may go from being a carbon "sink" (soaking the stuff up) to a carbon source.

Secondly, who polices the offsetting companies? Who makes sure they are doing what they say they are doing, and that their projects are worthwhile? Anyone can start one up, and there are increasing stories of cowboy behaviour. There is a well-regarded international benchmark for offsetting, known as The Gold Standard, but not all companies adhere to it (it inconveniently excludes planting trees).

Thirdly - and this is the principal objection - offsetting does nothing to change people's behaviour, in fact, it gives them a licence to carry on behaving as before. Why change the Chelsea tractor for something not quite so egregious in emissions terms, if you feel you've cancelled out its malign effects? But you haven't, really. The CO2 you are putting into the atmosphere has been lessened not a jot by the notional carbon reduction elsewhere that you may have paid for. You're still polluting just as much.

Behaviour will have to change if societies are to get to grips with cutting CO2. There is a value in offsetting, and that is that it starts people thinking about their own contribution to the enormous challenge which climate change presents. But it also can have the unfortunate effect of making people feel that dealing with the climate threat is a free lunch. And it's anything but that.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

VB.Net Developer - £40k - Surrey - WANTED ASAP

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...

Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

£50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

Day In a Page

Read Next
'Our media are suffering a new experience: not fear of being called anti-Semitic'  

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk
David Cameron (pictured) can't steal back my party's vote that easily, says Nigel Farage  

Cameron’s benefits pledge is designed to lure back Ukip voters. He’ll have to try harder

Nigel Farage
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In my grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel