The carbon offset industry came in for fresh criticism last week with the publication of a major new report that argues offsets are a dangerous form of "greenwash" that has negligible environmental and social benefits and makes people complacent about the seriousness of the threat posed by global warming.
The 80-page study from lobby group Carbon Trade Watch, entitled The Carbon Neutral Myth, argues that carbon offsets are "modern day indulgences, sold to an increasingly carbon conscious public to absolve their climate sins".
The report ticks off all the well documented criticisms of offset programmes, exploring how they promote complacency in the people who buy them; how it is scientifically unfeasible to determine with any confidence how much carbon each project saves; how it is impossible to guarantee a project will last for its full projected life, particularly if global warming causes planted forests to die out; and how "creative accountancy" measures such as double counting of carbon credits and buying credits from plantation schemes that already exist are used to inflate the profit margins of offset operators.
Most damningly it also explores how "projects that look great on the website or in the leaflet are often, in practice, mismanaged, ineffective or detrimental to the local communities who have to endure them".
Specifically, it looks at the high profile project that saw rock band Coldplay offset the launch of one of its albums by paying the Carbon Neutral Company to manage a major mango tree plantation in Karnataka, India. The CarbonNeutral Company claimed the planting of 10,000 trees would "provide fruit for trade and local consumption and over their lifetime [they] will soak up the CO2 emitted by the production and distribution of the CD".
However, the report cited reports from the Sunday Telegraph and the independent Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Management which uncovered major problems with the scheme, such as complaints from local villagers that many of the saplings had died and that they had not received the maintenance money promised.
The report also investigates similar problems with a FACE Foundation forestry project in Uganda where local people were forcibly displaced from the land and a ClimateCare energy efficient light bulb distribution project in South Africa where a similar scheme from a local energy company undermined the premise that the scheme would not have happened without the offset company's investment.
The study is without doubt extremely partisan and largely collates existing reports rather than delivers any new revelations. It also fails to address the improvements in the practices and accountability of many of the larger offset firms witnessed in the last few years.
However, its central premise that we should focus more on reducing our own carbon emissions rather than paying others not to pollute is hard to argue with and the report should prove an interesting read for any company that has already purchased offsets or is considering doing so – even if it is just to ensure they are aware of the counter arguments leveled against the practice.
The debunking of the term carbon neutral in the appendix is particularly worthwhile, highlighting as it does the ridiculousness of asserting yourself as carbon neutral when, by many of the offset companies own admission, it will take 100 years (the projected life of a tree) for your emissions to be completely neutralised.
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