Carbon Neutral Myth? Protesters Take On Offset Companies

25 February 2007
Having hit the headlines for my purchases of carbon offsets, and my transatlantic romance, this Treehugger is now a little concerned that I’ll come home to find activists chained to my front door. Earlier this week, London Rising Tide, a group of climate change activists, occupied the head offices of the Carbon Neutral Company, one of the leading UK offset providers. The protesters were seeking to highlight what they call the ‘Carbon Neutral Con’. While the group acknowledges that many people purchasing offsets are doing so ‘with the best intentions’, they argue that offsets amount to little more than guilt-relief for high polluting lifestyles. They drew attention to a recent report from Carbon Trade Watch, entitled The Carbon Neutral Myth, which compares carbon offsetting to the practice of the medieval church selling ‘indulgences’ to absolve sinners. Some of the protesters’ objections are technical (for example they question the ‘future selling’ of emissions savings, or the ability of trees to ‘lock up’ CO2), and could therefore be answered by stricter rules and better practice. However, they also claim that the whole concept is flawed, that it encourages fossil fuel use, and that it distracts from the urgent need to find alternatives:
“If we compare the planet to a running bath, full almost to the brim with CO2, to offset CO2 emissions is like saying “I won’t turn off my tap. I’ll pay someone else £10 to pay someone else £2 to turn off their own tap.” (Guess who pockets the change?) The reality is that we need to turn off both, if we’re to have a chance of cutting CO2 emissions by 50% before 2016 (which is the single most important task facing you and me, right here, right now in 2007.)”
The action was set to coincide with the All Party Parliamentary Committee on Climate Change that is being chaired by the Carbon Neutral Company. Rising Tide claim that the Carbon Neutral Company’s involvement is tantamount to privatization of the committee process, and argue that it is nothing but a distraction from the deep systemic changes that are needed to fight climate change. Sue Welland, a spokesperson for the Carbon Neutral Company, told the BBC that Rising Tide’s accusations were inaccurate and unfounded:
"This group (Rising Tide) has never asked for a meeting with us, so we don't know what they do, and I don't think they know what we do. What we do is help companies measure and reduce their emissions; and where they can't reduce their emissions, we help them offset. So we're a carbon management company, not a carbon offsetting company."
This distinction between carbon management and carbon offsets is an interesting one. If offset companies really can engage with their customers, help them to reduce emissions at source as much as possible, and then offset the rest while they seek even larger reductions, then they are probably providing a valuable service. However, there is no question that they do also help alleviate people’s guilt about polluting, and can therefore act to prolong damaging behaviors. The idea of offsetting a private jet flight, or an unnecessarily inefficient car, seems somewhat absurd to me, but then one person’s ‘necessity’ is someone else’s luxury. I’m sure there are plenty of people who would question my 'need' to fly to see my then girlfriend, now fiance, and I can understand their reasoning (though they obviously haven't met her!). I personally feel that as long as Governments' fail to put an appropriate, and substantial, tax on airline fuel (something I would fully support), along with other restrictions on aviation emissions, and funding into alternatives, then I should at least do my part to take responsibility for my choices - offsetting is a small step in that direction. Maybe I'll get a chance to swap ideas with those opposed when they barricade my front door…