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Offset or off course?

In Business and Environment, Environment, Ethical and Eco Agriculture by Martin OliverLeave a Comment

Have you recently checked out a website for ecological products and been presented with a range of carbon offset choices?


With each passing month, the carbon neutral movement gains more prominence, as celebrities, corporations, Channel Seven’s Sunrise TV show and the Live Earth concerts have harnessed the media to raise public awareness about the opportunities to offset carbon emissions.

However, some people within the environment movement are not convinced. British investigative journalist George Monbiot draws a parallel with the selling of indulgences by the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages. If somebody confessed their sins, a small payment would be accepted in exchange for absolution, avoiding the need to tackle the underlying behaviour.

Climate change and carbon cuts

Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels have risen from 280 parts per million (ppm) to 380 ppm, and are set to increase further. The latest figures from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) anticipate a global average temperature rise of between 1.1 and 6.4 degrees above 1980-1999 levels by 2095. According to the IPCC, we need to rein in emissions by 2020 to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Among scientists, a growing consensus has been emerging that if carbon concentrations are stabilised at a level that causes the Earth’s atmosphere to warm by no more than two degrees, we can probably avoid the worst effects of global warming. This would require an aggressive carbon reduction effort.

Late last year, Sir Nicholas Stern issued the Stern Review, a report that addresses the economic impacts of climate change. It argued in favour of countries investing 1% of their national Gross Domestic Product in emissions reduction measures.

Stern believes that a 60-80% cut in carbon emissions by 2050 will stabilise carbon levels at somewhere between 500-550 ppm, but admits that severe impacts would not be avoided under this scenario. In his estimation, a 450 ppm stabilisation target offers only a 50% chance of holding atmospheric heating below the important two-degree mark, yet is referred to as being ‘already almost out of reach.’

George Monbiot has heard that in government circles the UK’s reduction goal of 60% by 2050 is privately acknowledged as not being sufficient, but is supported for being far more palatable to industry than a more precipitous drop. In his recent book Heat, Monbiot crunches the numbers and calls for a 90% cut by 2030, laying out a plan for the UK to meet such a goal without abandoning its current standard of living.

Ultimately, we are in the dark about what is in store, and the maximum 59-centimetre rise in sea levels that the IPCC forecasts by the end of this century may become irrelevant if the ‘tipping point’ is reached. In our current position, it would be wise to adopt a precautionary approach.

Carbon neutral options

Over the last year or two, carbon neutral providers have been springing up like mushrooms. Using their online calculators, it is possible to offset an estimated quantity of CO2 produced by a range of planet-warming activities including non-renewable electricity consumption, waste production, car use and air travel. One Australian company called Easy Being Green even offers to carbon-neutralise your cat.

High-profile bands and artists including The Rolling Stones, Coldplay and K T Tunstall have decided to offset the emissions that they generate through air travel, the transport of equipment and energy use at their venues. In the business world, giants such as PricewaterhouseCoopers, News Corporation and HSBC are all working towards a carbon neutral goal.

Such offsets are created via renewable energy (Climate Friendly and GreenSwitch), energy efficiency projects (Easy Being Green), or through tree planting initiatives (Greenfleet, Carbon Neutral, and CO2Australia.) These companies have been joined by the Federal Government’s Greenhouse Friendly program, which offsets on behalf of Australian businesses. Similarly, the NSW Greenhouse Gas Abatement Scheme is an offset-based emissions trading scheme that began in 2003.

Forest controversies

Trees absorb CO2 from the atmosphere via photosynthesis. After a period of around 20 to 30 years however, the decomposition of fallen limbs and increasing numbers of fallen leaves tends to neutralise the net absorption effect. Once considered to be cutting-edge, forest-based carbon offsets are now seen as flawed by the environmental movement for a diverse set of reasons.

The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) regards renewable energy carbon neutral projects as a form of ‘prevention’ that avoids generating the emissions in the first place. In comparison, it likens tree planting to a ‘treatment’ for emissions that have already been generated.

In the opinion of many scientists, we may only have a decade in which to act on the climate crisis. Emissions avoided today through renewable energy programs will have significantly more effect in halting the momentum of climate change than carbon taken up by trees over the next three decades: in the shorter term, the soil disturbance associated with tree planting can involve a net release of carbon, instead of an uptake.

This May, the Sydney-based Total Environment Centre issued the report Carbon Neutral Watch that questions the benefits of carbon neutral programs. Being a new sector, it is still unregulated, and although some companies are protected by independent auditing, consumers need to be alert to possible accounting anomalies such as single offsets being sold to multiple buyers. As the science of forest offsets is still fuzzy, the amount of CO2 that each tree will absorb during its life is debatable.

Among the many unpredictable factors, carbon offset forests could be attacked by pests, destroyed by fire, chopped down, or even become net carbon sources and increase the likelihood of runaway climate change. As the atmospheric temperature rises, most of these scenarios become increasingly likely.

Some tree planting programs occur in developing countries, where poor human rights safeguards and the selection of non-native species result in negative impacts on local communities. More beneficial are the ongoing mallee plantings in Western Australia and the Murray Darling Basin. By combating the spread of salinity, these have an additional environmental benefit beyond their offset contribution, but perhaps deserve to be pursued separately from any carbon accounting.

Renewable energy programs

Offsets in the renewable energy field most commonly involve wind turbines and methane digesters, often located in overseas countries. Here too, things start to get a little tricky. There is the question of whether such a project would have gone ahead in the absence of offset payments, whether it has what the Americans term ‘additionality.’ Carbon neutral critics claim a lack of additionality in one South African project involving compact fluorescent low energy light bulbs.

For electricity use, another renewable option is to switch over to Green Power. Accreditation requires that 80% of electricity must be sourced from ‘new’ projects that came into existence since the start of 1997, and Green Power is counted separately from any federal and state renewable energy targets. Among carbon neutral companies, Climate Friendly and GreenSwitch are both Green Power-accredited for all their offsetting activities.

The aviation dilemma

Of the different transport options, aviation is notable for being the most carbon-intensive means of mass transport. It is also the world’s fastest-growing contributor to climate change, spurred in recent years by the rise of low-cost airlines. The British Government anticipates a mammoth 250% increase in passenger numbers by 2030, and plans for further runways at UK airports have attracted much controversy and opposition.

The bad news doesn’t stop there. Due to a phenomenon known as the Radiative Forcing Index, high-altitude emissions are estimated to create around 2.7 times the greenhouse effect of those emitted on the ground. Index multipliers used by carbon neutral companies vary anywhere between one and three, contributing to widely varying flight offset results across the different online calculators.

Some airlines such as Virgin Blue and British Airways offer voluntary environmental levies that are directed into carbon offsets. Tour operator Intrepid Travel has gone one step further, and charges a compulsory levy to its customers according to distance. Unfortunately, George Monbiot and even figures within the industry believe that no solution to aviation emissions is on the horizon: new generations of planes are expected to achieve efficiency improvements, but these are set to be quickly eaten up by the projected growth in passengers and flights.

Under the circumstances, it is unsurprising that the aviation industry is starting to embrace carbon offsets, but is this just a fig leaf that fails to tackle the real issue?

Other viewpoints

In July, members of the climate activist group Rising Tide occupied the London offices of the Carbon Neutral Company in a protest action. Like many other deep green environmentalists, they see carbon offsetting as an easy option that facilitates a ‘business as usual’ scenario without the need for any significant change at a personal or national level. Going on a low carbon diet by cutting back on electricity, driving and air travel may require mental engagement in addition to a few uncomfortable sacrifices.

A further concern involves the psychology of offsetting. Environmentally orientated people who are hesitant to fly may be persuaded to catch a plane by the availability of carbon neutral options. In addition, it is easy in the complex modern world to pick up erroneous ideas, and some passengers may see flying as environmentally beneficial due to advertised carbon neutral tree planting activities.

At a time when deep carbon cuts are obviously required, carbon neutral products can at best only ‘balance the books’ at the zero level. This accounting mentality may not be appropriate for our current predicament. Essentially, carbon neutral programs are similar to emissions trading, but without the critical ‘cap’ that determines the level by which emissions will be reduced.

Looking at the federal Greenhouse Friendly program, there is a case for governments to be aggressively pursuing energy efficiency and renewable energy initiatives, without tying these to voluntary subsidies from the business community in the form of carbon neutral offsets.

In the Consumers’ Guide to Going Carbon Neutral, the ACF advises people to prioritise by initially becoming more energy efficient, then purchasing Green Power, and finally looking at offsetting. Green Power-accredited providers make an obvious first choice.

For most individuals, direct emissions (from sources such as driving, electricity and waste) are exceeded by the energy embodied in the products and services that they consume. Consequently, our overall consumption and spending patterns usually offer more leverage for tackling carbon and other greenhouse emissions than carbon neutral products. This requires a level of awareness about what tends to be carbon-intensive (examples include air travel, cruises, air-freighted food, meat and aluminium), and what is a low-carbon choice.

Is offsetting a dangerous detour from the path we should be taking? If so, there is an urgent need for some out-of-the-box thinking.

Is hemp part of the solution?

For many years, freethinkers have been telling us about the amazing properties of industrial hemp. In 1937, using ‘dope fiend’ scaremongering as a cover, the US banned its cultivation shortly after DuPont’s discovery of plastic, and prohibition quickly spread to many other countries. In recent years, hemp has made a comeback, and is now legal to grow in Tasmania, Victoria and Queensland.

From a carbon neutral perspective, hemp is an interesting plant. In Australia, it grows to maturity in only four months, and absorbs about 1.7 times its dry weight of CO2. Hemp stems are made from approximately 50% carbon.

Among hemp’s many end-uses, one is as a building material. France has a well-established hemp building industry utilising rock-hard hemp and lime bricks, also known as ‘hemcrete’. Although there are currently no hemp houses in Australia, plans are underway to build a couple of these dwellings in the Tweed region of far north NSW.

As hemcrete is made up of about 50% hemp stems, a hemp house consists of roughly 25% carbon, all of which will have been sequestered from the atmosphere. In contrast, concrete has a high carbon footprint due to the nature of cement production from limestone, which generates extra CO2 in addition to emissions from its substantial fossil fuel appetite.

By using hemp instead of mainstream products with a high environmental impact, it may be possible to reverse the harmful climate effects of industrial production by harnessing the manufacturing process as a means of actively reversing climate change.


Climate Friendly


Total Environment Centre

Green Power:

About the author
Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver is based in Lismore, and writes on a range of environmental, health and social issues. He takes the view that sustainability is about personal involvement, whether this involves making our lives greener, lobbying for change at a political level, or setting up local eco-initiatives.

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