Offsetting isn’t working and the carbon market is a farce.
Sometimes I feel I have the patience of a saint. I have for so long been able to wait whilst the new systems “bed down” and discover whether they work or not. But it’s nearly fifteen years since these economic mechanisms started to emerge in the States then seep into the European Community’s patterns of thought. In recent years they’ve also come to the fore in the UK, too.
Simple offsetting was an early hit here, mind, and I never trusted it. I had a long discussion at the Centre for Alternative Technology five years back with a guy happy to support it “because it was doing some good”. Better than nothing, kind of argument. In fact he was doing his brother’s bidding, as said bro worked…for an offsetting company. My thought then, and now too, was to engage in offsetting masked the true damage whilst providing no solution. I went home and fumed but came out with a cohesive response:
Zero carbon Britain – where trees are not little, fluffy irrelevances.
At Europe’s leading environmental centre – the Centre for Alternative Technology, CAT – this weekend I joined a meeting where they unveiled their blueprint for a “zerocarbonbritain” to be obtained by drastic and stringent changes to our national lifestyle over the next twenty years. In sidelining the use of fossil fuels for transport and aiming to become nationally self sufficient in food production they set clear goals but, rather as a non league second eleven playing Manchester United, it wasn’t clear how they were going to score them.
Actually, I don’t doubt the need. We face a dual threat. First that of Climate Change, driven by an ever increasing Global consumption of fossil fuels and the destruction of natural, carbon fixing forestlands and, second, that of the less affluent two thirds of the World wanting their fair share of current affluence. By a simple positive feed back mechanism the latter thus accelerates the former.
In a vain effort to cover the blushes of the affluent megapolluters a system of “Offsetting” carbon release has been evolving. The intergovernmental treaty signed in Kyoto was maybe the obvious start of this. We (for, yes, I am part of that group) Megapolluters would carry on megapolluting only, in return for letting us do this, Lesserpolluters would allow us to teach them how to get by better using even less energy.
There has also developed a private form of “Offsetting”. This was and is for private individual and corporate Megapolluters to pay conscience money after using an embarrassing amount of carbon for personal fun or corporate gain. This offset money from the UK was initially spent in the UK planting trees to soak up – “sequester”- all this embarrassing carbon. To make it into wood again. In fact it turned out to be doubly embarrassing as it seemed creative forestry accounting was then used to label trees already planted for “normal forestry” as now being carbon sequesterers.
Red faced, the Carbon Offsetting companies then took their lead from Kyoto. Actually they’ve been driven by Kyoto. As part of our Megapolluter Obligation to educate the Lesserpolluters to help us repair the damage we’ve made, we then, for example, planted mango forests (now Played out) in India and eucalypts a long way from the Outback. No good at all it turned out, not surprisingly.
So the emphasis turned to helping the Lesserpolluters use even less carbon. Mexican tortilla makers were given new, efficient stoves to cook more tortillas whilst burning less charcoal. Marvellous. Until the folk north of the border took to buying up all the maize flour so as to convert it into bio diesel for their new “Green” driving craze. Now the tortilla maker doesn’t use his stove at all because he can’t afford the flour. Even less carbon release! I needn’t mention low energy light bulbs to South African townships, need I?
After all this bad press it was inevitable that Government would step in. If there’s to be mess and cock ups the government wants its share! They have now agreed a voluntary “Gold Standard” for conscience money payments. So all “Offset Companies” set off to offset in the same way. A bit more double accounting should easily use all the dosh to meet outstanding promises of government aid to Lesserpolluting countries in surviving on less fossil fuel. Incredibly one of these gold standards is that none of this conscience money should ever be spent on the planting of trees. “It doesn’t work”, “It could only be 5% of the UK’s carbon release.” “It costs too much to monitor it over time”.
The truth is that of course it cannot be a full answer. We’re burning our way through fossil fuel laid down over 200 million years in just 200 years. Put every square metre of the planet to forest and it’ll take a long while to restore the atmosphere to the pre-industrial state. But at present we have no other method available to us or even feasible. I see it as integral to our collective future on this planet that we restore as much forest as we can. This future seems to me to be dependent on this action which leaves me dumbfounded when I read and hear of the politics of “Offsetting”. Trees, I hear, are regarded by young British Green Activists as being annoyingly “cuddly” and “fluffy”. “People like them and want us to plant the horrid things. Misguided fools, it’d do no good”.
Thankfully the CAT document suggests we in Britain increase our forest by around 200% , that’s five million hectares (about 19000 square miles), up to 33% of our land surface area. Now if we brought home all the conscience money and Offset all our damage here at home where we’ve made most of it, we could see the results and continue to monitor it as well as moving towards CAT’s laudable goals. In the meanwhile our Government could spend real Government money to meet its own international Obligations. I imagine we could persuade them to help towards the five million hectares as they’ve a lot at home on their conscience to Offset as well.
That’s settled then. Zerocarbonbritain in twenty years and trees are neither fluffy nor irrelevant.
Chris Hemmings July 10th, 2007.
But, of course, in the intervening five years these economic mechanisms have become the only show in town. Yes, we have the glamorous “Voluntary market” I’ve delved into in recent postings and there is the scope for a tightening of the emissions trading scheme but not at present carbon pricing. As I’ve also mentioned previously most of what money is generated by these markets finds its way to high visibility, short term payback projects which result in quickly accountable direct reductions in fossil fuel consumption. Thus windfarms on the Scottish moorlands or clean technology in developing countries. (Yeah, the tortilla cookers, above!)
Quid pro quo. Reciprocal exchange. An eye for an eye. The offset lie is that that tonne of coal “offset” will not be burned whereas we all know that all it actually means is the “Offsetter” is allowed to burn it himself, again and again because he’s stopped you doing it. He is finding you some money to build your windfarmed tortilla cooker but still burns just as much carbon. Quid pro quo. There must be restoration. Extract coal, extract oil, extract gas and there must be restoration, repair to the environment.
The maths will be arbitrary. How many trees to cover one tonne of coal? It could be based on the amount of solar energy sunk in that coal and the forest required to capture that but this is detail. The principle needs must be established first – if you extract carbon energy stores from the Earth you fund directly the restoration. Quid pro quo.