The Carbon Neutral Myth - Offset Indulgences for your Climate Sins

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Kevin Smith, Carbon Trade Watch

Every time a politician takes a flight these days, they are hardly off the aircraft steps before they boast that they have "offset" their emissions and made their flight carbon neutral. We can be safe in the knowledge that our leaders haven't made the environment any worse flying to the G8.

Carbon offsetting does seem too good to be true. After all, if you can really pay a third party to offset the consequences of the fossil fuel you have burnt driving your SUV around town, then we might not have to worry about climate change instead we can continue behaving exactly as we like.

As more and more people become concerned about the threat of global warming, carbon offsetting has become big business. The world-wide market was worth €89 million in the first three quarters of 2006 - a 300 percent rise on the previous year. A managing director of one offset provider claims that the industry is only tapping 1 percent of their potential.

It is in this context that Carbon Trade Watch has produced this excellent little pamphlet looking at the industry to see if it really is a mechanism to save the planet.

Unsurprisingly, they find that rather than being the panacea that it's claimed to be, purchasing offset credits can have exactly the opposite effect. Most projects work by attempting to quantify how much carbon dioxide will be emitted by a particular activity (you can see the fancy electronic calculators on the company's websites) and then funding activity to cancel this out - the planting of a forest in the third world or the distribution of energy saving light bulbs to South African townships, for instance.

This relies on a form of economics based on "future value accounting" - today's emissions can be offset by the carbon dioxide absorbed by a tree up to 100 years in the future. It's not entirely without irony when they point out that this is similar to Enron's business practices.

What this all means is that we can continue to emit carbon dioxide now, with reductions happening at some point in the future - assuming the forests that have been planted survive for the required century.

Carbon offsetting creates a perception that "something is being done", allows big business to avoid making fundamental changes in the here and now, and the "act of commodification at the heart of offset schemes" turns the desire for climate action into yet another market transaction.

The pamphlet finishes off with a brief set of alternative strategies that put social change at the heart of solving the problem. It is a brilliant weapon for those who want to argue that the market has no solutions to the climate crisis.