Carbon offsets: A convenient answer to an inconvenient truth?

Flying and driving are big contributors to climate change. The burgeoning business of carbon offsets claims that, for a small price, you can travel with a clear conscience. 

Is eco-travel an oxymoron? According to the official website for Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, you produce a tonne of carbon dioxide (or equivalent gases) when you drive from Cape Town to Windhoek and back in a large SUV and another tonne when you fly one way from Joburg to London. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that transport is responsible for a quarter of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions – second only to power generation. As people become concerned about the impact they are having on climate change, an entire industry has sprung up to help people become ‘carbon neutral’.

The concept is deceptively simple. First, you use a carbon calculator to work out your carbon footprint: your personal contribution to greenhouse gases when you fly, drive or turn on the lights. Next, you find ways to reduce this – by buying a more fuel-efficient car, for instance. Then you log onto the Internet and buy carbon offsets to cancel out your remaining emissions. From as little as R70 a tonne, it doesn’t even cost the earth.

If this all sounds too good to be true, that’s because, in some cases, it probably is. The money you spend on carbon offsets is meant to be channelled into emission-reducing projects, such as installing solar panels in rural villages, distributing energy-saving light bulbs in townships or planting trees. However, carbon offsets are intangible and the voluntary offset industry is still unregulated.

According to ‘A consumer’s guide to retail carbon-offset providers’, a report commissioned by environmental group Clean Air/Cool Planet, ‘in the absence of an accepted standard, almost anyone can offer to sell you almost anything and claim that this purchase will make you carbon neutral.’

‘There are a lot of cowboys jumping on the bandwagon, thinking, “Let’s get rich on carbon,”’ says Manu Wegmershaus, director of Climate Africa, a Cape Town-based carbon offset retailer.

With dozens of offset companies offering hundreds of different projects, it’s difficult for people to understand what they are buying and what to look for. ‘There are some very good funds out there, but you have to think for yourself,’  says James McCallum of Joburg-based Carbon Ethics. This means asking some tough questions about carbon offset projects.

How do you make sure that a tonne of carbon bought is actually a tonne of carbon saved? How can you prove that the same solar panel, light bulb or tree hasn’t been sold several times over? Will the offset only happen in the future and how long into the future? Some companies sell offsets for projects that haven’t yet started and all offsets take place over an extended period. For instance, to save the tonne of carbon-equivalent gas produced by an eight-hour flight, you’d have to run a home solar panel for more than two years.

Perhaps the most important question is whether the project would have happened without carbon finance. ‘There’s something called additionality. It’s a key word in the industry. If people could do it anyway, then it doesn’t count,’ says Wegmershaus. Unfortunately, there’s no reliable way to test for additionality, so it can be highly subjective.

What’s more, you don’t necessarily get what you pay for in the carbon market. Prices vary widely, depending on where you shop for credits, and are no guarantee of quality. Less expensive offsets aren’t necessarily less effective, although higher-priced projects may offer extra benefits and long-term sustainability. Clean Air/Cool Planet suggests that the cheapest offsets may not be genuine. An independent certification that’s probably the most reliable mark of quality is the CDM Gold Standard, but it’s a pricey process not all projects can afford to go through.

Some environmentalists have likened carbon offsets to the Catholic church’s sale of indulgences before the Reformation. Instead of reducing their footprints, people drive petrol-guzzling vehicles or take private jets, and then think they can buy offsets to forgive their sins. ‘The reality of carbon offsetting is that it cancels out our guilt and doesn’t change our habit patterns,’ admits McCallum.

McCallum and Wegmershaus both agree that offsets are the last step in a process. ‘Carbon finance is making money available for projects that wouldn’t otherwise have been possible,’ says Wegmershaus. ‘But our push is not so much for offsets, it’s to assess and to make a reduction in people’s activities. If you make no changes and just throw money into carbon offsetting, then why bother?’

Three ways to reduce emissions when you travel and save money:

  1. Fly economy class. According to a report, ‘GHG emissions resulting from aircraft travel’ published by Carbon Planet, business and first class passengers have a carbon footprint two to three times larger.
  2. Only drive if you can’t walk, cycle or take public transport (trains are best).
  3. When you drive, plan your route, avoid quick acceleration and deceleration, properly inflate your tyres and remove unnecessary objects from your vehicle. If your car has a real-time fuel consumption computer, use it.

Originally published in the November 2008 issue of Getaway Magazine.

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One thought on “Carbon offsets: A convenient answer to an inconvenient truth?

  1. Thankyou for this input on the carbon neutral discussion! I really enjoyed reading through this, especially your thoughts on “How do you make sure that a tonne of carbon bought is actually a tonne of carbon saved?” There are so many great initiative out there, we just have to go for it!

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