Carbon offsets: what’s the reality?

March 21, 2007 at 10:00 pm 14 comments

free photo - airplaneHaving hopped off a plane this week from Hong Kong to Sydney, I wondered what carbon emissions my Syd-HK-Syd return trip might have released into the atmosphere. Burning jet fuel and the vapour trails produced by planes contributes to carbon emissions swirling in the atmosphere. We’ve all heard of carbon offsetting, where you can buy credits to fund projects, like planting forests or supporting wind farms, to counteract the harm caused by air travel or other environmentally offending practices.

I decided to use some commercial online calculators to check out the carbon count of my flight. First up, I used Offsetters (Canada) and the carbon count for a distance of 14,748 km return trip was 4.16 tonnes of carbon released into the atmosphere. To offset this, I would need to pay CDN $78.44. Next, I tried the Carbon Neutral Company‘s calculator. For my direct return flight, the distance was 14,758km, which would produce 1.6 tonnes of CO2. I was given a number of projects to select from to offset the carbon emissions: Futures Portfolio at £14.91; International Communities Portfolio for £13.17; or One World Portfolio for £11.36. The three listed projects help to foster new technologies, plant trees or focus on community projects in developing countries, such as a solar lighting project in India, which would replace kerosene lamps with clean lighting that reduces CO2.

Finally, I visited Australia’s OriginEnergy Go Green calculator and discovered that carbon emissions from my trip were equivalent to emissions created by 1.4 cars in one year! air travel emissions totalled 5.77 tonnes. To offset 100% of these emissions it would cost AU$92.31.

My direct return flight seemed to produce a mixed range of greenhouse gas emissions – 1.6, 4.16 and 5.77 tonnes. Intriguing! why the difference? The Carbon Neutral Company pointed out that long haul flights are more fuel efficient than short haul ones; and that different aircraft emit different emissions. They stick to the DEFRA (UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) emissions factors to calculate the CO2 a flight creates. Offsetters base their calculations on a report into the climate impacts of aviation by the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University.

And then there’s the varying range of costs involved in purchasing carbon credits – from around AUD$28.00 to $93.00. A bit of sleuth work uncovered this interesting report entitled Voluntary Offsets for Air Travel Carbon Emissions from the Tufts Climate Initiative. Chart 5 in the report shows a table of Price Per Tonne of Carbon Offset with a wide range of price difference per tonne. It seems to depend on where commercial offsetters purchase their carbon credits. If on the international market through institutions, such as the Clean Development Mechanism, then it proves to be more expensive.

So how do you know which offsetter to purchase from; what exactly happens to your money and whether the environment actually benefits from you purchasing carbon credits? how do you know that the forest you’ve invested in hasn’t gone up in smoke or withered in a drought? how long are planted forests for example maintained and cared for? and there’s the issue of whether carbon offsetting really is just a way of making us all feel a little less guilty whilst still carrying on with our polluting practices. So more sleuth work was necessary!

Over at Another Green World blog, it seems that the head office of the Carbon Neutral Company (UK) was the subject of a recent “occupation” by Derek Wall (green activist) who was protesting against what he sees as the ‘smokescreen’ of carbon offsetting. He says “Many people are now questioning whether offsetting allows some of us in the richer, developed world to carry on with our massively polluting lifestyles, instead of lowering our own emissions”. In other words, business as usual.

So what’s the evidence when it comes to the effectiveness of carbon offsetting? Carbon Watch has released a report called “The Carbon Neutral Myth – Offset Indulgences for your Climate Sins”, which likens carbon offsets to indulgences – avoid any time in Purgatory by expiating your sins. An interesting statistic I came across is that the voluntary offsets market will be worth EUR 450 million by 2010. Big money indeed. And it’s a concern that there is little or no regulation as yet of this industry so although you think you might be doing the right thing by purchasing carbon credits, in fact the offsetter may be “dodgy” and you end up buying hot air.

Carbon Watch’s report refers to offsetting as a “dead end tour” that does nothing to address the urgent need to change our patterns of consumption or transform society into a low carbon economy. Chapter 2 is a very interesting look at the history of the Carbon Neutral Company and how a number of tree planting ventures by various offsetters have failed, due to land degradation or planting of non-natives.

Digging a bit deeper, it seems The Carbon Neutral Company was originally known as Future Forests having been founded in 1996 by a music promoter and a musician (who was the drummer of the punk rock group The Clash). Such high profile beginnings and connections in the entertainment industry led to projects like Brad Pitt’s $10,000 donation to the company to plant a forest in Bhutan in his name to offset his glamorous Hollywood lifestyle.

There are two issues to keep in mind here – what is the actual science involved behind carbon offsetting and does the money actually make it into environmental projects? Tackling the last issue first, there is a difference between planting trees and obtaining carbon sequestration rights for trees that have been planted by other resources. One example in the report shows that an offsetter claimed they had planted trees in a forest in the UK, when in fact they had paid for the carbon sequestration rights. The upshot is for this particular project, £16,140 were profits for the company while the forest only received £860. This was from money gained to offset a rock band’s world tour.

A quick scan of carbon credit agreements also shows that a forest is maintained for a finite period of time – seems 70 to 99 years is the average. This takes us back to the science – a popular notion is that trees absorb CO2 thereby neutralising whatever emissions took place. But the carbon cycle is an incredibly complex process split between the active and inert phases. Scientists do not know with any accuracy exactly how much CO2 trees absorb or how long they store the CO2 for.

In fact, trees emit methane – a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere – and may be responsible for 10-30% of the total methane count. If the tree or forest goes up in smoke or decays, CO2 is released back into the atmosphere. And as the planet heats up, trees will undoubtedly die off and emit methane further contributing to the cook-up.

And how much money does it actually take to maintain a forest for up to 99 years? there’s a lot of things to take into account – access to and cost of water; ongoing health of the land or soil the trees are planted in; licensing etc. Does the fine print in tree project agreements stipulate the actual costs of maintaining and caring for a forest? is there mention of people being driven off their lands or biodiversity of the region being disrupted? we are dabbling in future rights without addressing the real issue of our ongoing tragic love affair with fossil fuels.

The Kyoto Protocol refers to tree planting projects as “carbon sinks” and I wondered if this is simply a new form of colonialism ie world resources usually in developing countries being used to maintain the privileged lifestyles of the rich or allow big business to go on pillaging the environment. The Carbon Shop report refers to a colonial mindset when it comes to people being evicted off their land to make way for tree plantations.

There are of course alternatives to tree or forest planting, which I’ll explore in a future post. But I think the crucial issues are: before purchasing carbon credits, investigate that the offsetter is credible; look into what happens with the money and the projects; think about funding an energy project instead.

And what of my international travel? I have made a conscious effort to cut down on my whizzing around the world and will continue to do so. I no longer travel by air domestically as videoconferencing or that old stand-by, the telephone, can accomplish wonders :)-


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Entry filed under: Carbon offsetting, Climate Change.

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14 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Dan  |  March 22, 2007 at 12:08 am

    There’s nothing wrong with funding green projects in other parts of the world. The strange thing about offsets is that they are sold as products in their own right, which distances the buyer from the underlying project.

    If we viewed the money as a charitable donation rather than an ‘offset’ we might be more likely to engage with the offset project and also less likely to forget that we have a responsibility to address our own lifestyles.

    Did you buy the offsets for your flights in the end?

    Reply
  • 2. thinkingshift  |  March 22, 2007 at 12:34 am

    Hi Dan

    The urgent need to address our fossil fuelled up lifestyles is the challenge indeed. In the end, I went with the Australian offsetter – still not entirely convinced about the whole thing, but you gotta do something!
    Kim Sbarcea

    Reply
  • 3. Bill  |  April 1, 2007 at 12:50 am

    This is a very tough issue full of good intentions, not so good decisions, people working hard to find good offsets, people trying to do something today, profiteers with both small and extravagent returns and an unregulated wild wild west mentality.

    Thinkingshift, at least you tried to work through the issue, ask questions and engaged the process. I see alot of stone throwing by all sides and second guessing, when we should be looking for answers and leaders.

    We have been working on the offset opportunity & risk for about 12 years and there are no silver bullets and few easy answers.

    We need a continued dialogue with transparency. And, I think that is coming in several ways over the next few months.

    Bill

    Reply
  • 4. thinkingshift  |  April 1, 2007 at 2:02 am

    Hi Bill

    Thx for coming onto ThinkingShift and leaving your comment. You are very right when you
    refer to an unregulated wild wild west mentality.

    When you say you think a rich dialogue is coming over the next few months – anything in
    particular you were referring to as a matter of interest?

    rgds
    Kim Sbarcea

    Reply
  • 5. Derrick Windsor  |  May 2, 2007 at 1:41 pm

    I don’t agree with commercial Carbon Offesetting schemes, for the same reasons you and others have raised. But what I am doing is putting that money into active programs for my own home such as Solar PV systems and Solar Hotwater systems.
    I have also embarked on a neigbourhood aware program. Whilst this may seem selfish, at least I know none of the contribution I am making is being wasted on someone else’s administration fees.
    I wish you every luck with your own efforts of education and awareness
    Cheers
    Derrick

    Reply
  • 6. thinkingshift  |  May 2, 2007 at 10:05 pm

    Hi Derrick
    Thx for visiting the ThinkingShift blog and your good wishes. What you’re doing is a great effort at the local level through education and reducing your own carbon footprint.Keep up the great work.
    Kim Sbarcea

    Reply
  • 7. David  |  May 14, 2007 at 9:50 am

    I thought you might be interested in this blog on the importance of soil impacts on carbon sequestration in forests. Disturbing Soil Has Disturbing Effects on Forest Carbon. It is based on a paper “Carbon sequestration and forest management” by Robert Jandl, Lars Vesterdal, Mats Olsson, Oliver Bens, Franz Badeck and Joachim Rock appears in CAB Reviews: Perspectives in Agriculture, Veterinary Science, Nutrition and Natural Resources, 2007, 2, No. 017.

    Reply
  • 8. thinkingshift  |  May 14, 2007 at 9:56 am

    Hi David
    Thx for visiting ThinkingShift and thx for the blog reference – will certainly check it out.
    Kim Sbarcea

    Reply
  • 9. victor bossell  |  May 18, 2007 at 1:26 am

    Dear Kim.
    I need help:?
    -An accepted method to establish my carbon emission.
    -I have lots of huge trees in my garden ,do they count as an offset.

    Reply
  • 10. thinkingshift  |  May 18, 2007 at 3:05 am

    Hi Victor
    Thanks for visiting ThinkingShift. Establishing your own carbon footprint is an important first step. Have a look at http://observer.guardian.co.uk/magazine/story/0,,1992556,00.html – I really like this Low Carbon Diet approach to help understand how to reduce carbon emissions.
    You can also calculate your personal impact on Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth site http://www.climatecrisis.net/takeaction/carboncalculator/
    Having lots of huge trees – trees that shade the house can reduce your airconditioning use (very good!) and a single tree will absorb one ton of carbon dioxide over its lifetime. Make sure they’re natives though. Go here http://www.earth911.org/master.asp?s=e911&a=GreenLight/Update/display.asp&b=2006/April for more info on planting trees and tree care. Good luck!
    Kim

    Reply
  • 11. Our Carbon Nation  |  September 30, 2007 at 9:09 pm

    Hi all,

    We at Our Carbon Nation firmly believe that we must all strive to reduce our carbon footprint. We have issued a new global directory service http://www.ourcarbonnation.com to try and bring some transparency to the carbon offset market. This we hope will lead to consumers gaining more confidence in the industry. We believe that on those occasions when reduction at source is not possible, credible offsets do have a role to play in cutting carbon emissions and raising awareness of climate change.

    We hope you will have take a look and let us know what you think.
    Karen – Our Carbon Nation

    Reply
  • 12. Nisahnthai  |  July 3, 2008 at 6:35 am

    I am a physical science student. This is very helpful for me. But I am still in the experimental stage.
    …………..
    Nishantha
    http://www.goinggreenbuzz.com/

    Reply
  • 13. Kelzang  |  December 8, 2008 at 9:38 am

    We are from Bhutan and I work in Department of Forests of the Royal Government of Bhutan. We are not aware of any carbon offset forest plantation in the name of Mr. Brad Pitt. If you have any information, please write to us as such plantations are not there in Bhutan

    Reply

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