CO2nned? Carbon offsets under the spotlight

New Internationalist (NI), a monthly magazine with the self-proclaimed mission of bringing you "the people, the ideas, the action in the fight for global justice" has taken up the subject of carbon offsets in its July issue. Under the title "CO2nned: Carbon offsets stripped bare", the magazine levels some very serious accusations against the companies and organizations claiming to offer "carbon neutrality" to their corporate and individual clients. The NI is certainly not without a political bias, and the issue is far from an even-handed exploration of the concept, but it does raise some very interesting questions.

Some of the NI's biggest criticisms are leveled at tree-planting projects. A report by Adam Ma'nit claims that many offset projects serve as little more than subsidies for monocultural mega-plantations of non-native species, often forcing indigenous people off the land, clearing existing vegetation and releasing stored carbon from the soil. He also points out that climate change may threaten these very plantations through increased fires, pests and diseases. Even when projects appear to address concerns of local people and sustainable development, Ma'nit is skeptical. He cites the example of Coldplay's involvement in a tree planting project organized by the Carbon Neutral Company. Of the 10,000 mango trees that were planted in the band's name in Karnataka, India, a later report by a British newspaper, the Sunday Telegraph, found only a few hundred still alive with the Carbon Neutral Company and it's project partners in India wrangling bitterly over who was to blame. Ma'nit's report, however, does not mention that the Carbon Neutral Company promised to make good this short fall by funding other more successful projects elsewhere.
Similarly, an article by Trusha Reddy takes on the idea of technological offsets. She explores a scheme in South Africa in which British company Climate Care paid for the replacement of incandescent light bulbs with more efficient compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) in poor households. According to Reddy the scheme was done in a hurry and there was little or no aftercare in terms of checking that the bulbs remained operational. She cites the fact that none of the 69 bulbs reported broken a few months after the scheme have yet been replaced. Having said that, 69 bulbs out of a total of 10,000 is not a huge rate of failure, but for households on a low income who have been asked to give up a previously working incandescent in exchange for a disfunctional CFL, the statistics of the situation are probably irrelevent.

Another question, and one which should certainly be of concern whether you support the concept of offsets or not, is how companies calculate emissions for a particular activity. The NI gives the example of a round the world trip to visit it's offices in London, Toronto, Christchurch, Adelaide and back to London - a trip which was quoted by 4 different companies as creating wildly differing amounts of pollution, ranging from 4.3 to 11.63 tonnes of CO2 and costing somewhere between $60 and $195 to offset.

Of course all of the above are essentially criticisms of how offset companies operate, not of offsets themselves. Better regulation and monitoring, and more careful selection of appropriate projects, would certainly solve many of the problems cited. However, the NI also criticises the fundamental concept behind offsets, namely that we can atone for pollution in one place by paying for emissions reductions elsewhere, claiming it is simply a ploy to keep us burning up the oil. It argues forcibly that offsets simply distract from the vital task of reforming our markets, our governments, our communities and our way of life. On the other hand, this argument does not address the fact that many offsets programs are only a part of a much bigger effort to reduce emissions such as purchasing renewable energy and improving efficiency. We cannot cut out fossil-fuels overnight, and paying for the emissions we can't cut may be a way of achieving cuts elsewhere for the time being, although claiming oneself as "carbon neutral" may be a little questionable. Whichever side of the argument you fall on, there is no doubt that there is more to stopping climate change than planting a tree via credit card...

The issue is available now in shops, or ordered directly from New Internationalist. It should also be available online in mid to late August. [Written by: Sami Grover]