“Be a hero! Save the world from global warming!” reads a Google ad on a webpage about carbon offsetting. As much as we might all like to think of it that simply, the reality is it’s just a little more complex. Carbon offsetting is basically the process of reducing the net carbon emissions a given individual or organization is responsible for, as a means of simmering down the global warming situation (carbon emissions, as the scientific consensus agrees, are one of the primary causes). The two biggest sources of emissions are fossil fuels (fuel oil, coal, etc.) and deforestation, the former taking about 75% of the blame. An individual or organization can offset these emissions themselves by altering their practices, but often, a carbon offset provider is utilized. The regulated offsetting global market is expected to be worth £68.2bn by 2010, while the “voluntary” market was worth £20m in 2005, and is expected to top £4bn by 2010. As for how much the government (regulated market) contributes to anti-global warming operations (and their advancements) with the profits, it is unclear, but the unregulated market is said to sometimes take as much as 40% of the profits (60 in at least one case). Two questions arise from these statistics: one, of all organizations, why are these not all non-profit? And two, whenare these companies going to start being more sensible, caring less about money, and more about taking bigger steps toward a healthy planet?Well first, yes, new companies need to invest a significant amount, and therefore profit-making can be a need, no matter the business (its interesting that one offsetting company even recorded losses last year), but this view as a whole comes under question when we see companies like Ticos saying they can pass off 80% of the payments they receive directly to offsetting projects. Regarding the second question, there doesn’t seem to be any apparent reason. And with all the damage we’ve done over the years to Earth, taking those gigantic steps for the sake of industrialization, the least we can do is trek in the opposite direction some.
The problem with offsetting begins even within the very definition: sometimes, the net carbon emissions are not reduced – whether this is intentional or not depends on the given company or individual responsible for emissions, and/or the provider in charge of carrying out what their client pays for. The Financial Times reported in late April following its investigation of the industry that they’d “uncovered widespread failings in the new markets for greenhouse gases, suggesting some organisations are paying for emissions reductions that do not take place”. They also discovered many companies were benefiting from doing very little (or by doing what one could say was just “business as usual”) services of questionable or no value, and lack of verification of the value of carbon credits (tradable permits allowing owners to emit one tonne of CO2 per credit), among other things. To elaborate on the last issue, some of the carbon offsetting that goes on is essentially unregulated, and not required (this results in even more problems, such as different companies giving different emission rates to clientele, diminishing collective credibility). Though it should be noted that all compliant nations are still under the regulations of the Kyoto protocol, and if they surpass their allowed emissions, they are required to make up the difference plus 30%, and are suspended from making transfers under an emissions trading program. The regulated sector is governed directly by Kyoto, and also the European Union. So those are the simple facts – the seemingly obvious question then is “Why isn’t the entire industry regulated?”. Forget offsetting and trading, forget planting trees and all that for now. Why is this all not regulated, so that all companies must heed regulations, and perhaps after the fact work in conjunction with non-profit organizations to help the environment?
Rigesa is one such company, a Brazilian subsidiary of the MeadWestvaco Coporation. According to a World Business Council for Sustainable Development report, on its own earnings, it has become the most profitable producer of corrugated containers and folding cartons in its nation, and it has based its operations on environmental and social sustainability. So, there isn’t much argument as to whether or not this type of thing can be done. The model they use is both admirable and intriguing – each year a global Code of Conduct is reviewed and signed each year by each salaried employee and discussed with hourly employees. Over the years (and in recent ones), they’ve used their profits for all sorts of things (every one with the environment in mind), including well-researched forestry programs, a landowner assistance programs (meaning more and more business with private farmers), technology investment, and a conservation awareness program, among countless other things, all of which have benefited the local community immensely. Quite simply, this is the company you would be proud to work for. If there’s one thing anyone should walk away from with this knowledge it’s that there is a benefit to doing good work – if you respect nature, she will respect and reward you. These kinds of plans work marvelously for all involved in the long-term – greedy short-term Western civilization plans for world domination (well, at least local domination) only work for the short-term, only in our lifetime, and in some ways, sometimes not even that.
But back to regulation - as noted by the BBC in January, the government has been taking steps to increase the clarity involved in this issue, though not all are satisfied with how much. Furthermore, many providers are for-profit organizations. Equiclimate is one of the exceptions, and is approved by the The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) standards (Pure, Global Cool, and Carbon Offsets are the only three others).
One of the methods used for quite some time by the industry was tree planting. To break it down, the basic theory was if you planted enough trees to suck up the CO2 you emit, you’re in the clear. This has been downplayed in recent times, once everyone remembered trees die (and therefore release the stored CO2, at a later date when the environment is in a more critical state). Early last year, the WWF, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace released a joint statement telling the public they do not support tree planting as a medium for offsetting. Well, the simple fact that no one thought to raise questions about the method in the first place is a little astonishing (if not suspicious). The Observer reported late last year that the CarbonNeutral Company had put the majority of its tree planting operations behind it (as well as its celebrity planting schemes), stating they were a way of getting clientele involved, but feeling technology offsets are a realistic way of helping solve the global warming problem. So there’s that. Also worth bringing awareness of is the fact that a few offsetting organizations and their affiliates have been responsible for what have been reported as “brutal conditions” of forcing people off their land to make way for tree planting operations. Other criticisms and charges include introducing exotic tree species (therefore destroying ecosystems and releasing much soil carbon into the atmosphere), as well as paying workers far below standard rates. Those that’ve been reported to have been responsibility to date include Tree Farms, Dutch FACE Foundation and the Forest Stewardship Council.
Essentially, tree planting is one method of staving off the imminency of consequence, but really just delaying the problem and avoiding the real solutions - George Monbiot, an English environmentalist and writer, argues all offsetting fits this depiction, comparing the concept to purchasing Indulgences in the Middle Ages, whereby citizens would buy forgiveness for their sins as opposed to actually not sinning. He feels its an excuse for businesses to go about their day as always in regards to pollution.
As relayed to BBC News in the aforementioned article, Environment Secretary David Miliband stated offsetting (far beyond just tree planting) "isn't the answer to climate change".
"The first step should always be to see how we can avoid and reduce emissions," he said, adding offsetting has a role because "some emissions can't or won't be avoided".
But hey, it isn’t all gloom and doom for companies and environmental care. Aside from Rigesa and at least several other companies, the HSBC also seems to be on the right track. From the same Financial Times article mentioned above, Francis Sullivan, an environment adviser at the UK’s biggest bank communicated that he found “serious credibility concerns” in the offsetting market after evaluating it for several months (they went carbon-neutral in 2005, ignoring the market and funding its own reduction projects directly).
“The police, the fraud squad and trading standards need to be looking into this. Otherwise people will lose faith in it.”
Originally published in Southern OnTrack.
Tags: Carbon Offsetting , Environment , Global Warming , Emissions Trading
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