Have you booked a flight abroad recently? (And no, that’s not a trick question to see if you’ll own up to having a huge carbon footprint!) If you have, you may have been offered the chance to tick a box to pay an extra few pounds towards ‘carbon offsetting’. The idea behind this is that the airline then invests that money in a scheme which will lead directly to a reduction in greenhouse gases, equal to your share of emissions from the flight. Typically this will be a scheme such as planting trees in a developing country, or supporting the development of renewable technologies -but where does the money really go, and do these schemes ever work?
The biggest criticism of carbon offsetting would appear to be that it encourages the idea of ‘paying to pollute’ rather than changing behaviour. It’s not just flights; you can offset your household energy use, your car travel, your business activities – buyers of Calor Gas patio heaters can even pay to offset the impact of their heater on the environment. It would appear that the conscience of the developing world can easily be salved, despite the fact that there is no real regulation to ensure that schemes actually exist, that the measured carbon savings are accurate, or that the offset has not already been sold to another customer.
Many of the schemes advertised do not stand much scrutiny – tree planting is a favourite, but while some appear to be well thought out and carefully monitored, such as that of RippleAfrica, in Malawi, others have led to disruption of communities and loss of water supplies through inappropriate land use. In some cases poor management means that the trees do not even survive to maturity – in 2002, Coldplay offset the environmental impact of their latest CD by planting 10,000 mango trees in southern India. Just seven years later, most are already dead.
There have also been claims that some schemes are inadvertently leading to an increase in child labour. In one scheme – ironically, recommended by ‘Which’ as a good buy – farmers in developing countries are being paid to abandon their polluting diesel -powered irrigation pumps and use human-powered treadle pumps instead. Is it right that the world’s poorest should work harder so that the world’s richest can pollute more?
If you do want to offset, look very carefully at the scheme on offer. Does the organisation make it clear how much of your money goes into administration and profit? The UK offsetting industry was worth £60 million in 2006 and is forecast to reach £250 million by the end of this year, but there is no clear indication of how much has reached the projects being promoted, and no accurate measure of the actual carbon savings. If the scheme is one which you feel worthy of support, then it may be that making a direct donation to its organising body is a more efficient way of doing that.
Government organisation DEFRA has set up a Quality Assurance scheme for offsetting projects, to try to reassure consumers – most of the schemes involve development of renewable energy projects and none involve tree planting. DEFRA stresses that offsetting is a measure to be taken ‘after avoiding and reducing emissions as much as possible’- in other words, forget the patio heater, put on a jumper.
If you would like any more information on carbon offsetting, fuel bills or any other energy related matter, or if you’d like to borrow one of our electricity monitors, feel free to call in to the Islay Energy Trust office in Main Street, Bowmore, or contact Lindy on firstname.lastname@example.org , tel. 301413. If you have a monitor which is due for return, please drop it into the office or call and we can arrange to pick it up. We also have a large stock of low energy light bulbs available free at various points around the island – if you don’t spot any locally, there are lots in the office!