Carbon offset credibility

The world my seem to be greening, but with increased attention and publicity on the sustainable and the environmentally friendly, are the carbon offset schemes flying the green banner all that they say on the tin?

I’ve been thinking about carbon offset credits lately, namely what they are and whether they as good as they are cracked up to be? Are they effective on a long-term scale?

Carbon offset credits are designed to counter carbon emissions from activities such as driving a car or flying. The theory is, that for each unit of carbon produced, the equivalent is removed elsewhere. They are usually renewable energy schemes such as solar or wind power, or ‘carbon sinks’ such as forests which absorb and store carbon.

So, you take a holiday to the Caribbean, and upon your return decide to purchase some carbon offset credits to ‘offset’ your flight – so you can fly guilt free and the environment does not suffer – everybody wins right? Well, unfortunately its not quite that simple, this strategy known as ‘dump, burn and offset’ (thank you Fred Pearce) should not be used as a substitute for cutting down on energy use and increasing efficiency.

Carbon offset credits are often more complicated than the organisations marketing them may let on. Firstly calculating the carbon footprint for a given activity is not straightforward. Take a flight for example, it is generally accepted that 3.15 tonnes of carbon dioxide is produced for every 1 tonne of aircraft fuel burned- so just multiply that by the amount of fuel used right? Well, you also need to take into account the outside temperature, altitude, other gases emitted etc. AND how much of the plane should you be responsible for? Just the share allotted to your seat or a percentage of the whole plane depending upon how full it is? Phew, I feel tired already!

You then need to consider the effectiveness of the scheme you buy into. Forest planting is a typical ‘carbon sink’ scheme, but saplings planted this year may not mature for decades (if at all). What if the trees never reach maturity? What if the area is sold or they succumb to a some rampant disease? We cannot be certain that the trees planted will definitely absorb their allotted carbon, and even if they do, they will only store carbon during their lifetimes, once they die it will be released back into the atmosphere, leaving problems for future generations.

But I don’t want to be all doom and gloom, I think carbon credits are a step very much in the right direction, the schemes themselves are great, and buying carbon offset credits is certainly better than doing nothing (especially for big business). But I do not subscribe to the ‘dump, burn & offset’ philosophy, carbon credits should not be used as a cop out for cutting emissions, and will not reverse damage already done.

What would I do? Try to fly less, turn off my unused lights and plant as many trees as I can in a personal capacity.

Thanks for reading



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