Offsetting emissions

Last updated Wednesday 2 July 2008

Can we pay off our carbon balance?

Was your last holiday a guilt-trip? Then you might have been tempted to pay a small fee to offset your emissions. But would it really make a difference?

What do The Rolling Stones, Coldplay and Al Gore have in common? They've all paid money to schemes that claim to remove CO2 from the atmosphere to compensate for their own emissions.

And you don't have to be a celebrity to try it. As more of us feel guilty about flying, the idea of paying someone instead of changing our lifestyle becomes more appealing. Although only 7% of us have tried offsetting so far, it's one of the fastest growing industries in the world.

Just one problem: most experts agree that offsetting can encourage us to continue carbon intense activities.

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How does it work?

Put simply, you pay money to a company running a scheme, and it buys or subsidises energy-efficient technologies (solar panels, efficient stoves, low-energy lightbulbs) to compensate for your emissions from a specific activity. A widely used and controversial example is planting trees to offset flights.

The vast majority of 'carbon offsets' are bought by governments or big companies that are bound by law to comply with caps on their overall carbon emissions. But, for just a few pounds, individuals can offset on a voluntary basis to compensate for emissions from transport, household energy use - whatever they feel is bulking up their carbon footprint.

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How will it make a difference?

Figures from New Scientist magazine suggest you would need to plant about 22 trees in the rainy tropics to offset the emissions of a return flight from London to Malaga. Critics claim that in practice it makes no difference at all.

Offsetting might help us feel better about our CO2 emissions without changing the behaviours that caused them. Although a flight offsetting scheme may cause some benefit, the real problem of flying is not addressed and according to some scientists, may even be encouraged.

The weight of scientific evidence suggests that offsetting is no alternative to lifestyle changes such as flying less or driving less.

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What's the debate?

Although most offsetting schemes are well-intentioned, unregulated industry operations are open to mishaps and in rare cases fraud. For example, an offsetting project paid thousands of pounds for the carbon rights to a forest on the Isle of Skye while unaware that the rights had already been sold to the UK government. In a bid to standardise the industry, the UK government has initiated a 'kitemark' standard. At the time of writing, none of the offsetting schemes that applied have qualified for the kitemark.

A consideration for all donor-funded organisations is the proportion of money spent on administration and beaurocracy. Given the complexities of auditing CO2 savings, such expenses are likely to be far higher for offsetting schemes.

Around 30% of voluntary offsets are from forestry projects; it's these which draw the most flak from scientists:

  • They argue it's impossible to tell how much CO2 a tree will absorb: it might die prematurely and absorb less CO2. If it rots it will emit methane and CO2
  • Even if a tree lives to maturity, tree offsets can be seen as merely postponing CO2 pollution until the tree dies - which will not be as long as your CO2 emissions stay in the atmosphere
  • Current research suggests that, due to the effect climate change is already having on trees, tropical forests aren't as good as they were at getting rid of CO2
  • Some projects have been criticised for planting single-crop species, which reduces biodiversity, and for displacing local farmers and communities. Also, re-foresting one area might simply encourage local farmers to deforest other areas

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How do I do it?

Pub Fact

  • The Irish public pay E500,000 a year to offset Ministers' flights
  • Flights by UK delegates to the 2007 United Nations Climate change conference in Bali were offset by buying industrial emissions under a United Nations sanctioned scheme
  • In 2007 the pope donated the Vatican Climate Forest in Hungary, in an attempt to offset CO2 emissions from the Vatican City
  • Tree offsetting is big business - In 2005, 20million worth of trees were planted and by 2010 the market is expected to reach 300 million
  • In a year and half of its offsetting scheme, British Airways has successfully offset 0.01% of the 27 million tonnes of CO2 from flights during this time

However, if you're keen to give it a try:

  • When you're buying carbon-intensive goods and services, you'll increasingly be offered offsets by the companies involved, such as travel agents and car insurers
  • Prices vary widely, so expect to pay anywhere between 10 and 170 for the same offset
  • Maintain a healthy sense of scepticism, particularly if an offset seems suspiciously cheap
  • In the future, look out for a government-published list of kitemark approved schemes

In practice, environmentalists and the government would say, it's much better to avoid or reduce emissions in the first place, rather than try to compensate for them afterwards. So try holiday by train instead of the plane for instance.

If your concern is to make a difference to developing world communities, your money might be better invested directly in charities that can prove a long-term impact on people's livelihoods rather than via an offsetting scheme.

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Comments

Baz, Shrewsbury 2009-01-24

The idea of carbon offsetting is typical of the amount of commercial activity we see connected to green issues. Politicians have long realised the value of 'being green; now we are seeing companies especially set up to capitalise on our guilt. Look around you at the green issues, if you want a wind turbine, the amount of paperwork is amazing and then you have to pay someone to install it, why can't I do it myself if I am capable?
Why carbon offset when some or most of your money is going into running a carbon offset business? keeping someone in a job probably flying around the world to attend important global warming seminars. My advise is to save your carbon offset money and invest it yourself directly in carbon saving schemes, cut out the middle man and make better use of the cash. From the top of this page we can see that the cost effectiveness of offsetting is very poor, the reason is explained above.

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Glossary terms used on this page
CO2
CO2, or carbon dioxide, is made up of the elements carbon and oxygen. It exists quite naturally in our atmosphere, as part of the carbon cycle. Everyday processes in the plant and animal world both add CO2 to the atmosphere and take it out. However, because it is a greenhouse gas - meaning it affects the temperature of the earth - the exact level of CO2 is important. Burning fossil fuels releases CO2 into the atmosphere, hence the anxiety that extensive use of these fuels is causing climate change.
Kitemark
The kitemark is a symbol signifying that a product or service has met a standard set by the British Standards Institution (BSI) Product Services division.
Kitemark
The kitemark is a symbol signifying that a product or service has met a standard set by the British Standards Institution (BSI) Product Services division.
Methane
Methane is a hydrocarbon, the main component of natural gas and among the six greenhouse gases to be curbed under the Kyoto protocol. As a greenhouse gas it is estimated to have a warming effect about 25 times as great as CO2. (Compared to CO2 its effects are greater but last for a shorter period). As a fuel, it is used in electricity generation and in the form of compressed natural gas it can be used as vehicle fuel. Methane is produced during the decomposition of many materials in landfill, while about 16% of methane emissions are caused by livestock's digestive processes.

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