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Last Updated: Friday, 29 June 2007, 09:23 GMT 10:23 UK
Society 'needs the right chemistry'
Stefaan Simons
Stefaan Simons

Carbon offsetting schemes are all well and good, but do little to change the way people live day-to-day, argues Stefaan Simons. In this week's Green Room, he says instead of wasting money on short-term solutions, attention should be focused on developments that can really deliver a low carbon future.

Chimney and clouds (Getty Images)
Carbon offsetting does little to get to the heart of the problem
There has been a real surge in carbon offsetting companies setting up shop, keen to take advantage of increasingly environmentally-savvy consumers concerned about their carbon footprint.

But, paying away the guilt over carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions does little to change our actual behaviour and will not help save the planet from the very real problem of rising emissions and global warming.

So what can and should we be doing?

Carbon offsetting does little to get to the heart of the problem but it does reward those who are working hard to reduce their carbon footprint.

You could argue that it has an important role to play in dealing with those emissions that can't or won't be eliminated, at least in the short to medium-term.

Credible carbon cuts

However, for offsetting to work, companies offering such services must be able to show how they are adding value and actually offsetting the carbon that is being emitted.

For example, it is no good simply planting a few trees to compensate for someone taking a flight. Ultimately, those trees will die, rotting down, releasing carbon, and once again adding to the problem.

We already have a voluntary code of practice in place to cover the offsetting industry, but I believe a government-run accreditation programme is the only way we will be able to eliminate the risk of someone looking to make a fast buck on the back of consumer and business guilt.

Without this, the reputation of the offsetting market will be undermined, leading to falls in the price of carbon, until credits become virtually worthless.

The world is growing increasingly aware of the carbon problem. This is a result of initiatives such as better labelling of products to cover information on the carbon emitted during their manufacture, packaging and transportation.

The real issue is how we move to a low carbon economy and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels

This approach enables consumers to make more informed choices about what they buy; forcing companies to change behaviour through the power of consumer pressure.

But labelling should not just cover the amount of carbon emitted during the production process; it must also include what will be emitted in the future.

Many electrical goods, for example refrigerators, have an energy efficiency rating, but this needs to be converted into CO2 emissions so that the consumer can make a judgement on how such a product contributes to global warming.

Making a significant reduction in carbon emissions will have to be driven by the business world.

Chemical engineers are playing a major role in helping industry reduce the amount of carbon emitted and thereby reducing its impact on the environment in a number of ways.

Carbon capture programmes, where CO2 emitted by power stations, oil and gas production plants is stored in geological formations instead of being released into the atmosphere, are critical.

Current estimates suggest that such initiatives will account for more than 50% of reduced emissions by 2050.

Yet, while capture programmes enable us to deal with much of the carbon we emit, they do little to cut back on the amount we are producing.

Appliance of science

The real issue is how we move to a low carbon economy and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

Chemical engineers are working hard to develop low carbon technologies and carbon abatement processes for industry. This means adopting radical changes in the way we produce chemicals and how they are used.

Chemistry containers (Image: EyeWire)
We must learn to produce chemicals using technologies that require less energy and produce less carbon if we are to have a real and lasting effect on the level of emissions

At present, the creation of chemicals requires significant amounts of energy as many processes rely on high temperature reactions to produce the materials we use every day.

Simply generating the energy to support such high-energy processes results in significant amounts of CO2 being emitted and, in many cases, the manufacturing process itself adds to the problem as CO2 is produced as a by-product.

We must learn to produce chemicals using technologies that require less energy and produce less carbon if we are to have a real and lasting effect on the level of emissions. This is where chemical engineers have a vital role to play.

For example, in my own laboratory at University College London (UCL) we are developing a process to radically alter the way we produce titanium dioxide, the base pigment used in paints.

The current process is very energy intensive, produces CO2 as a significant by-product and some rather nasty waste streams that are generally disposed in landfill sites.

We believe our alternative process is not only less energy intensive but produces minimal waste and no CO2 by-product.

There are many other examples of current chemical processes that could be redeveloped in similar ways. However, making such radical changes in operations requires considerable investment and support from the chemical industry, backed up by strong political will.

If we're to make a real impact and meet Government targets of reducing CO2 emissions by 60% from 1990 levels by 2050, we are going to have to do more than simply throw money at the problem under the guise of offsetting.

Our focus has to lie in creating a low carbon economy and reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.

Stefaan Simons is a "Chem Envoy" for the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) and a professor at University College London

The Green Room is a series of opinion pieces on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

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