[Update: See end of post for Climate Care's response]
It looks like the UK’s offset companies are again being targeted by climate change protesters. The Climate Camp, which disbanded yesterday, and which we covered here, here and here, has now spread out to continue its direct action against what they describe as ‘the root causes of climate change’. In addition to blockading the offices of the British Airport Authority, BP, and a private equity firm funding the expansion of Leeds Bradford Airport, two groups of protesters dressed as red herrings have simultaneously also occupied the offices of Climate Care and the Carbon Neutral Company (whose offices were previously occupied by protesters back in February). Protesters explained their choice of targets as follows:
"Carbon offsets are ineffective, based on dubious science and lead people to believe they are helping when they are not - the concept and the practice are a con," said Sophie Nathan, who is taking part in the Carbon Neutral Company invasion. "Real climate action involves taking direct responsibility for personal emissions levels as well as engaging in political organisation for wider change."
While we do, to some degree, understand protesters concerns about offsets becoming an excuse for inaction, we are concerned about the dogmatic, black-and-white approach they are taking. Protesters repeatedly make claims that offsets are ‘a con’, that they ‘do not work’, and that they are only about making a fast buck, while dictating what ‘real climate action’ is, as if they are the only authority on this matter. They also regularly repeat the assertion that offsets are akin to the medieval practice of buying indulgences for your sins from the Church – an entirely emotive argument that bares little relation to how offsets work.
We suspect that part of this opposition is down to ideological rather than practical reasons – many protesters are wary of companies that seek to make money from climate change. However, money being a strong motivating factor in this society, and time being short to bring about a revolution, smash the capitalist system, and come up with a viable alternative (something that people have been trying to do for some time now), we tend to think that understanding and using market forces wisely to direct funds towards the most effective emissions cuts can only be a good thing. That’s not to say that offsets are an end in themselves – cutting emissions at source, and engaging with political structures to tackle the perverse incentives for climate destructive behaviors must be absolutely top priority. Protesters are assuming that this is an ‘either/or’ scenario – there is no consideration of the possibility that, when properly regulated, managed and communicated, offsets can be an effective way to engage folks in climate change, raise awareness of their own emissions, and build up knowledge, understanding and motivation for wider personal and political change.
While there will certainly be companies that are less than scrupulous out there, from our discussions with offsets providers we know that many are motivated, committed and thoughtful folks who are working extremely hard to cut emissions as best they can. The science is young, and they will make mistakes along the way, but they are well aware of the need for credibility and accountability within the industry, and are bending over backwards to achieve it. They know only too well the limitations of offsets, and see themselves as the thin edge of a much larger educational ‘climate wedge’ in people’s lives. Whatever protester's views about what constitutes 'real' action on climate change, we suggest that their cartoon-like depiction of all offsetters as villains who are just 'conning the public' is as unhelpful as it is inaccurate. We suggest that the next Climate Camp may do better sending folks elsewhere. For our thoughts on offsets done right, check out our guide on How to Green Your Offsets.
[Update: Climate Care have just issued a press release responding to protester's allegations - the following are excerpts:
"Activists holding a protest at the offices of leading carbon offset company Climate Care were invited inside for a cup of tea and an amicable discussion on the role of carbon offsetting in tackling climate change. Climate Care commended efforts to encourage more government action, and received acknowledgement from the activists that Climate Care’s work was a genuine attempt to cut carbon emissions and had many strong arguments in its favour."
"Carbon offsetting is not an excuse to pollute: carbon offsets are a way of taking responsibility for unavoidable carbon emissions, just as recycling is a way of dealing with unavoidable waste. Offset providers need to communicate this clearly but it is the responsibility of those buying offsets to use them responsibly. Where there is a carbon footprint – and even the most Green have one ! – it should be offset. There is little evidence that carbon offset services encourage people to continue polluting, and all the evidence that Climate Care has points to the opposite effect – that offsetting helps to engage the majority of the public and give them a concrete first step in taking responsibility for their impact. A survey of our own customers showed that 93% saw offsetting as part of an overall effort to reduce their impact on the climate and that 90% had done one or more of the following: driven less, flown less, made their home more energy efficient."]