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Controversial carbon

June 8, 2010

Environmentally concerned consumers can choose from a growing number of carbon offsetting schemes promising to bring down emissions. But experts warn they’re not always all they're cracked up to be.

Passengers in a plane
Air passengers can now ease their green conscience as they board a flightImage: paul prescott - Fotolia.com

Can consumerism and a climate-friendly conscience go together? In the world of marketing, the answer is a resounding 'yes.' A growing number of companies and organizations are offering so-called carbon offsets as part of a "carbon-neutral" lifestyle.

That means environmentally concerned consumers now have the option of mitigating their own carbon emissions while driving a car or even booking a flight. Offsets are typically achieved by financially supporting projects that reduce the emission of greenhouse gases in the short- or long-term.

The consumer pays more to curtail air pollution or help develop renewable energy sources such as solar thermal projects in the Khayelitsha township near Cape Town, South Africa.

Greenpeace urges caution

But are these carbon offsets credible or just marketing gimmicks? Environmental group Greenpeace thinks it's a good idea in principle, but calls for caution.

"You have to look carefully at it," Karsten Smid of Greenpeace said. "Some schemes are good, others "contain a lot of dubious promises where emission offsetting is simply played up."

A nuclear power plant in the Netherlands
Carbon offsets are meant to curtail air pollution in the long termImage: CC / FaceMePLS

Broadly speaking, carbon offsetting involves the consumer paying as much for carbon emissions as is needed to avoid the same amount of carbon dioxide being released in the developing world.

That's based on the "Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) - an important pillar of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, a legally binding global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Can the deals deliver?

The number of commercial and non-profit organizations offering carbon offsets is on the rise. There are dozens of different certifications and climate seals meant to prove how carbon emissions are mitigated.

But studies, including those conducted by the United Nations and Tufts University in Boston, have concluded that few providers of carbon offsets actually make a real difference to protecting the climate. Worse, some may be doing more harm to the environment than good.

There are lots of examples of how money invested in carbon offsetting projects often ends up being wasted. For instance, some power plants have been modernized using offsetting funds, despite the fact that the operators of the plant planned to revamp it anyway. In this case, offsetting saves the operator making an investment with his own funds.

Well-intentioned offsetting efforts sometimes also amount to little more than feel-good hype. That's what happened with British music band Coldplay. In 2004, the band invested in the high-profile planting of 10,000 mango trees in India to offset emissions generated by their tours around the world. But two years later it emerged that most of the trees had long shriveled up.

That meant tens of thousands of euros were literally squandered away without making any difference to the fight against global warming.

All hopes on Gold Standard

Hopes are now pinned on the “CDM (Clean Development Mechanism) Gold Standard” – a certification scheme for carbon offsetting developed in cooperation with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). It sets new standards in the carbon offsetting market by only promoting renewable energy and energy-efficiency projects.

The program stipulates that environmental damage has to be kept to a minimum and the projects must have a positive effect on the local population, jobs and health. All this is scrutinized by an independent reviewer and assessed several times. The solar thermal projects in Cape Town meet the requirements but Coldplay's mango forests wouldn't have stood a chance.

A reforestation project in Africa
Experts say reforestation doesn't lend itself to carbon offsettingImage: carbonfix

“Reforestation naturally makes sense but it's more difficult when it comes to offsetting emissions,” Joerg Ruediger from the organization Atmosfair said.

Atmosfair collects voluntary green offsets from air passengers, amounting to around two million euros a year. The money is used to exclusively fund projects that bear the CDM Gold Standard.

Careful counting of emissions

Atmosfair is also more meticulous than other offset providers in calculating emissions. Consumers can count emissions per flight on the group's web site. That doesn't just include fuel consumption but also factors in other pollutants such as the water condensation emitted by airplanes.

In 2008, the United Nations awarded an “excellent” ranking to the Atmosfair emissions calculator.

The group's emissions accounts are often at odds with those offered by other providers. For instance, German flagship airline Lufthansa's emissions calculator says six euros ($7) are needed to offset emissions for a flight from Berlin to London. According to Atmosfair, it's almost twice as much – 11 euros ($13).

Despite their good track record, Atmosfair is cautious about using the words “climate neutral” when it comes to its carbon offsetting scheme.

“Emissions are best avoided in the first place or at least reduced,” Joerg Ruediger said. “But if you really can't avoid flying then you should offset emissions.”

Author: Oliver Samson (sp)
Editor: Mark Mattox

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