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

Lucy

Daily dilemmas – metal teaspoon vs wooden stirrer

Every day I have the same dilemma, should I use a metal teaspoon to stir my tea or a wooden stirrer?

I try to live in an environmentally friendly way, I buy local produce where I can, try to avoid air freight, turn off my unused lights, try not to waste food – the usual. But our preconceptions of how to be ‘green’ may not always be right. For example, most people would agree that it is more environmentally friendly to use public transport than a car, BUT what if you are one of only a handful of people on the train? It then becomes more complex.

Anyone who tries to be environmentally friendly, may -like me- find the same questions arising in the mind on a day to day basis. Should I use a hand dryer or a paper towel? Local produce grown in a heated greenhouse or shipped in from abroad? Gas fire or electric heater?  Which brings me back to my original question.

The environmental impact can be calculated for any item by looking at the energy and resources required to create it, (if it is reusable) the energy required to maintain it and the ecological cost of disposing or recycling it.

Wooden stirrers are disposable, requiring relatively low amounts of energy to manufacture and will biodegrade. However they are only usable once. Metal teaspoons on the other hand, require significantly more energy to manufacture. The ore must be extracted, smelted and then shaped which requires extremely high temperatures and a huge amount of energy. They cannot be properly disposed of easily and are not biodegrade, but they could be recycled, are reusable and last for decades (the teaspoons at my Gran’s house are about 60 years old!).

So teaspoons are looking like the winner, but now the plot thickens, what about when you wash your teaspoon? Do you run it under a little cold water or wash it up in hot water? Do you wash it up by hand or in the dishwasher? A full, modern dishwasher is more efficient and saves more water when compared to the average person washing up.

So if you already have a teaspoon, you should probably use it, just make sure to fill up your dishwasher properly!

But what about cafe’s and coffee shops? Here you are frequently left with only the choice between a wooden and a plastic stirrer. Wooden wins for energy consumption, generating only small levels of pollution from production and biodegradability. BUT for ecological impact and consumption of resources, plastic wins.

So to some extent it comes down to personal preference, are you more concerned about the destruction of trees required for wooden stirrers (which may or may not be replaced), or the pollution and disposal problems of plastic? Nothing is straightforward.

I think I might stick with stirring my coffee with the end of a pen (not the end you write with, the other one) and wiping my wet hands on my jeans rather than tackling the whole paper towel vs hand dryer debate.

Thanks for reading

Lucy