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Last Updated: Monday, 23 July 2007, 17:24 GMT 18:24 UK
Carbon offsets deliver where it matters
Martin Wright
Martin Wright

The backlash against carbon offsetting could whip away funds from some ground-breaking projects in Asia and Africa, says Martin Wright. In this week's Green Room, he argues that criticism of projects which allow people to offset their emissions fails to look at the bigger picture.

Power station (Getty Images)
Trashing all offsets in the name of ecological correctness just plays to the very worst of British cynicism
Remember when carbon offsets were cool? When everyone from Coldplay to Fifa banged on about their carbon neutrality?

Now you can hardly mention them without incurring a great howl of derision. Almost overnight, offsets have slumped from being a dream solution to the mother of all futile gestures.

Columnists compare them derisively to indulgences flogged to medieval sinners to shorten their time in purgatory - whoever first came up with that clunking metaphor should be claiming royalties, so often has it been recycled in the last few months.

Everyone - activist and amateur alike - weighs in to give them a good kicking. Buy an offset, they say, and you're just buying complacency, a guilt-free pass to carry on as normal.

To an extent, it's all rather inevitable. Offsets had been over-hyped for years. Some of them - the early forestry ones in particular - were always prone to accusations of flakiness.

'Ecological correctness'

Of course it's always more effective to curb emissions at source than try to soak them up later or stop them happening elsewhere.

But to stick the knife into offsets with such relish, just when they're starting to gain common currency, is a touch perverse.

A woman using a biogas stove (Image: Martin Wright)
Inspiration which comes from knowing that you've helped a woman in Nepal get a biogas cook-stove, freeing her from walking three hours a day to fetch firewood

Most people out there aren't champing at the bit to make revolutionary lifestyle changes, much as the activist might wish. But they're more than happy to make some small payment in return for a dose of feel-good.

To them, it's pretty unimportant whether or not this totally and utterly neutralises their carbon. They just want to do something useful.

To trash that in the name of ecological correctness plays to the very worst of British cynicism.

Why? Because rather than drop offsets and take the train instead, many will use the backlash as a trigger to do nothing at all.

Like those who smugly refused to give money to Oxfam because they knew "the aid didn't really get through", they'll have the perfect excuse for inertia.

Take your average Land Rover driver, quietly pleased that his miles have been offset thanks to a deal his company struck with offsetting organisation, Climate Care. Then he reads that it's all a con.

So he thinks: "Hang on, this offset stuff isn't all it seems... I need to do more, much more", and so the scales fall from his eyes. He gives up his car, gets on his bike and stops flying to his weekend pad in the Mediterranean. Get real, it isn't going to happen.

Contrary to the activists' rhetoric, people who offset their air miles don't, as a rule, end up flying further, smug in the knowledge they've atoned for their sins. At worst, their impact stays the same. More often, they reduce it.

For many who are otherwise untouched by green concerns, offsets can be a relatively painless gateway to more significant actions - rather than a forbidding door marked "Abandon cars all ye who enter here".

That, at least, is what the surveys seem to show. Now admittedly, the only ones available are carried out by offset companies themselves - who arguably would say that, wouldn't they? So there is an urgent need for some independent research to establish whether - and how much - offsets have a knock-on effect.

Counting the carbon

Meanwhile, stung by the accusations of flakiness, the government has announced that it is going to impose a new "gold standard" to make offset projects' carbon accounting more rigorous.

Which is all well and good - but the first indications were that "rigorous" would be interpreted as something along the lines of the rather bureaucratic system adopted by the UN's Clean Development Mechanism.

A child reading by solar-powered light (Image: Martin Wright)
It would be a shame indeed if projects such as these were stigmatised as somehow second class or smeared out of fashion by a media backlash

In practice, this means your "gold" offset would fund one-millionth of the cost of cleaning up one of hundreds of Chinese coal power stations.

It might be logical, but it's hardly seductive.

The word now is that the government is having a rethink - and quite right, too. There's a need for rigour, sure, but it would be a shame if that came at the price of inspiration.

The sort of inspiration which comes from knowing that you've helped a woman in Nepal get a biogas cook-stove, freeing her from walking three hours a day to fetch firewood from dwindling forests, and then spending the rest of her waking hours in a kitchen filled with enough woodsmoke to give her and her kids chronic lung disease for life.

The inspiration that comes from hearing how you've enabled a Bangla family swap their dirty, dim kerosene lamp for clean solar light.

Or from learning that you've helped install a simple treadle pump which allows poor Indian farmers to grow crops throughout the dry season - so avoiding the need to uproot their families, taking their kids out of school, in search of sporadic work as day-labourers on building sites in cities far from home.

These are the sort of projects, funded by small-scale, voluntary offsets, which can make a tangible difference both to carbon levels, and the quality of life of some of the world's poorest people - none of whom give a damn whether they've precisely balanced your emissions or not.

Each of them are among the winners of an Ashden Award for Sustainable Energy, which focuses on schemes which simultaneously tackle climate change and poverty.

It would be a shame indeed if projects such as these were stigmatised as somehow second class or smeared out of fashion by a media backlash.

In time, there might be a genuinely global carbon market, where these transactions happen seamlessly, driving down carbon emissions as they drive up the price.

Meanwhile, it's surely better to replace a single kerosene lamp with a solar light, than to sit there, principles intact, cursing the darkness.

Martin Wright is editor (at large) of Green Futures Magazine, and a visiting judge for the Ashden Awards for Sustainable Energy

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

Do you agree with Martin Wright? Will recent criticism of carbon offsetting projects threaten clean energy projects in developing nations? Or is it little more than a quick fix for a much bigger problem?

Why don't they just call these "offsets" what they really are? Donations... Who is regulating where these donations go to? What percentage of the money goes to helping the eco-needy, and what percentage goes to "administrative costs."
CiCi H, FL

My favourite off-set projects are the ones for efficient wood-burning stoves in places outside of the Kyoto agreement, such as Honduras. The stoves are designed, build and distributed locally and the improvement to the health and quality of life of the users is very significant and in addition to the CO2 off-set. What could be better than that? Sign me-up for another year!
Brendan Dunphy, Nice, France.

While the article has merit for criticising the critics (!) of carbon offsetting, maybe a pejorative media isn't all bad. Personally, I think offsetting is a good thing but I won't defend it as a (pseudo) panacea because, while the net result is positive, the gains, if any are to be had, are very long-term.

I think we all appreciate that doing nothing about our collective carbon footprint is no longer an option and debate over offsetting will hopefully trigger more debate on the problem and possibly generate some more beneficial avenues to explore.
Adrian Miller, Darwen, UK

Reducing pollution and our impact on the environment is a worthy goal in itself but the way carbon offsets were sold as the solution was reminiscent of the high pressure sales tactics of snake oil salesmen. Combine that with the over allocation of credits by the EU and the whole scheme looks extremely dodgy.
Scott W, Port Orchard, USA

We are peddling climate change through our chosen lifestyles and that there are people in the third world who have no choice but to use firewood, lantern oil etc and also contribute to climate change. I cannot understand how it can be a wrong course of action to give them more efficient alternatives so that their carbon footprint is eliminated. Ultimately this what carbon offsetting is about - why/how can you even think about criticising this?
Shahid Fazal, Bradford UK

People are willing to do relatively painless acts if the acts contibute to a worhty cause. However, if people realize their efforts are ineffective, the net result is more cynicism. It's the burden of those who put forward such approaches, to pilot test their effectiveness.
john casana, Annandale, VA, USA

Ultimately the only thing to do is reduce "human activity" (number of individuals x their individual impacts) These Carbon Offsets are simply part of a process of eliminating all the possible get-out-of-jail options; till we arrive face to face with the real issue; us
Steven Walker, Letchworth

The last 750,000 years of history shows us that this is a naturally occuring thing, happening at the same rate as it always has, and that the cause is not the human race.

I really wish these enviro-activists would do more research rather than the "we produce carbon dioxide, i know about the greenhouse effect, therefore its our fault". Its just not that simple.

Do your research into the earths rotation around the sun, the tilt and wobble of the earth, sun spots, the oceans as a carbon sink, and overall percentages of CO2 output.

humans produce less than 1.5% of all new carbon dioxide per year! thats nothing, so any small reduction or addition means nothing in the grand scheme of things.

For some counter evidence, please look at the post war economic boom. CO2 levels shot up massively, but wait a minute, temperatures dropped?! Figure that one out.
Alex, Rochester, UK

I'm not convinced. Changes to the climate have occurred repeatedly throughout the ages. I think the whole thing is a scam by government looking for new excuses to tax me, combined with bleating from kill-joy enviro-nazis. I'm going to carry on enjoying my 5 litre car.
Wounded Taxpayer, Birmingham

"Because rather than drop offsets and take the train instead, many will use the backlash as a trigger to do nothing at all." Perhaps.

Maybe those people were just looking for an excuse to not do anything anyway. Maybe offsets just gave them a guilt-free way out of being responsible. That seems more likely than a new breed of complacency emerging because offsets aren't PC anymore.
Wendy T., Phoenix, AZ USA

"Get real", Martin advises the critics of profligate consumption. Well, many ecologists will argue that unless profligate consumers get real, their descendents and others will get really unpleasant lives.

Carbon offsetting is still riddled with cons and smooth-talking merchants knowing little science. Look at the proposed lunacy of seeding waters near the Galapagos with iron. Even the offset schemes involving "renewable" energy may damage rivers or other systems - some irreversibly. About the best thing we can do to "mitigate" inevitable emissions is to prevent further destruction of natural forest ('avoided deforestation').

I hope many people's reality comes to differ from Martin's - and the best way for that to happen is to listen to science, not business.
Clive Hambler, Oxford, UK

I think this is right - offsets that fund development abroad are helping lift people out of poverty and giving them access to energy without damaging the environment. It's true that offsets won't achieve the desired cuts in developed countries, but "Peak Oil" (the peak in global oil production) is already driving up fossil fuel prices here, and will help increase the pressure to make cuts at home too.

In the meantime, offsets are a good way of helping out those in developing countries that have arrived at the fossil fuel party just as the industrial countries have finished off the best drinks. We owe them!
Mike Pepler, Rye, UK

I'm going to fly this year. I know I shouldn't. I'm not going to be happy about it. I'm indulging horribly and I know it. For the most part I have reduced my carbon profile. I switch things off more, sold the car, try and get (sometimes successfully) others to follow in my not so brave carbon reducing footsteps. But though I fly less I'm still doing it. My familiy and friends live a long way away. I'm going to fly (this year) regardless of whether offsetting is a con or not.

But I am going to offset. Probably double the recommended abount, maybe triple. And it will make me feel a bit better. Though I know that the flights themselves are (probably) wrong.
Tom Shepherd, SoCal, USA

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