The TH Interview: Mike Mason of Climate Care, Part 1

A man holding wood pellets.

urbazon / Getty Images

Mike Mason is the founder of Climate Care, one of the world's first carbon offset providers which recently celebrated selling 1 million tonnes of offsets so far, and has just opened an office in Australia. Since the beginning, Climate Care has focused on supporting offset projects with a strong development potential, often replacing dirty fossil fuels, or greatly reducing reliance on natural resources. Some examples of projects they have funded include efficient cooking stoves in Africa and Asia, compact fluorescent light bulbs in South Africa, and human-powered treadle pumps in India. Mike Mason continues to innovate, developing small-scale technology for converting wood chips and other energy crops into wood pellets, and supporting a number of research initiatives into large-scale carbon reductions. In the first of this two part interview, Mike talks about how the offset market has changed over the years, and explains why offset companies should work with even the heaviest of polluters. Stay tuned for part two, in which Mike talks a little bit about how offsets are accounted for and verified, why they have a potential for improving lives in the developing world, and what we can all do to fight climate change.

TreeHugger: Climate Care was set up 10 years ago, and has grown rapidly. How has the market changed for carbon offsets over this time?
Mike Mason: Ten years ago few people knew about global warming and no-one knew what a carbon offset was, let alone what made it a credible one. In effect we helped to invent an industry that is now global and becoming well established. Now (almost) everyone has heard of carbon offsets, and lots of people have opinions about them — though sadly many are badly informed.

The market for carbon offsets is growing rapidly albeit from a small starting point - the government estimated its value in 2006 in the UK as £60 million — we spend a hundred times that on chocolate every year! It needs to grow rapidly to fulfil its potential in tackling the problem.

The Stern Review estimated that only 1% of the world's wealth would be required to achieve a low-carbon future and avoid 2 degrees temperature rise. But that is still over $600 billion per year. Compare that with the existing size of all carbon markets combined, which is only $25 billion per year, and you can see that we've a long way to go to channel sufficient funding.

ClimateCare believes that the size of investments into emission reductions needs to rapidly increase.

TH: How do you see the messaging and practice of offset companies changing in response to increased criticism and scrutiny?

MM: I have been campaigning for high standards for carbon offsets for the last ten years. Sadly, the dubious quality of a few offset projects over this time has meant that the carbon offset industry as a whole has become a target for negative media comment — making some believe carbon offsets have been discredited as a means to tackle climate change.

We need to be very clear that there are two separate questions. Firstly, is offsetting right in principle? Secondly, can it work in practice? We should deal with each separately.

On the question of principle — it is as if we are all in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean. We've just discovered the boat has a hole in it. Half the passengers — those who are mostly responsible for making the hole — refuse to do very much about it. The other half say they didn't make the hole so they aren't going to do anything either.

We have to do two things. Clearly we need to fix the hole — and that is the role for politicians, technologists, and others aiming to change human behaviour. But we also need to bail out the boat — else it will sink before the hole is fixed. Offsets are about bailing the boat — they are critical if we are to stay afloat long enough to sort the problem.

Most environmental organisations and opinion-formers agree that carbon offsets have an important role, so long as they don't replace action to reduce emissions at home. Absolutely right. Offsets should not be used as an excuse to continue polluting without trying to cut down your carbon footprint. But why should they be? There is no more reason for offsets to be used as an excuse to pollute as there is for recycling to be used as an excuse to produce more waste! And in Climate Care's experience nearly every company and individual treats offsets as part of a 'reduce and offset' approach — in a customer survey 94% said offsetting was only valid as part of a range of measures to reduce one's impact. So the 'myth of carbon indulgences', as it has been named, is largely that — a myth.

On the question of practice, it is true that there are some pretty flaky offsets out there — sold by cowboys. But the fact that there are cowboy builders doesn't mean we should stop building houses. It means we need more effort to ensure good ones are sold.

Climate Care has been closely involved with developing robust, workable standards, such as the Gold Standard for Voluntary Emissions Reductions, launched in May 2006. These provide reassurance for customers that real reductions have been made, AND allow really innovative and important projects to get funding.

Al Gore summed it up well: "The debate has moved on to what kinds of carbon offsetting have credibility, and which fall into the 'snake oil' category. Those that have genuine integrity are now, actually, driving a massive cottage industry around the world, which is every day reducing CO2 emissions "
TH: Climate Care's work with carbon-intensive product and service providers like British Airways or Land Rover have been subject to particularly harsh criticism from some quarters. Is there a company that you wouldn't work with, or are offsets from even the worst polluters a step in the right direction?

MM: Climate change is a really urgent problem.

Frankly, we have had 35 years since the Stockholm conference (that started the ball rolling on international climate action) and in that time the world has achieved almost nothing in terms of emissions reduction. We have perhaps 35 more years max until an irreversible calamity. We just haven't got time to wait while everyone voluntarily decides to change their lifestyles.

Let's not forget the fastest, and most global, influence on behaviour — money. We need politicians, campaigners and businesses to work to change the global economy so that it provides a real cash incentive for people to choose the low-carbon option. Polluters should pay, and reducers should be rewarded. Carbon offsets are a very good step in this direction. The more people that voluntarily take that step, the more likely our elected leaders will be to get everyone involved through policy changes.

What is also often overlooked is the positive impact that offsets can have in raising awareness — they can trigger a greater appreciation of the impact of different activities on the climate and may even persuade people to pollute less. Until they use a carbon calculator, often in order to offset, most people don't realise how damaging air travel is. In our survey 80% of our customers said they understood their own impact more through use of our carbon calculator.