Okay, this is, for some people, going to be an uncomfortable column to read as I am going to seriously challenge what for many seems like an obvious ‘conventional wisdom’. In many cases it is better for the planet if you offset your carbon emissions than if you reduce them via your own in-house efficiencies. The woman with the fully carbon offset Hummer is probably a better friend to the planet than the man in his non-offset Prius.
Now before you get your hair-shirt in a knot and aim a phalanx of hackie-sacs at me, let me explain. Carbon offsetting is simply the outsourcing of your emissions reduction. Offsetting is emission reduction that you pay someone else, a professional, to do on your behalf.
Carbon offsetting using properly certified carbon credits (as distinct from offsetting by ad-hoc tree planting or other uncertified schemes) not only provided guarantees that you are getting the carbon abatement you want; many carbon credit schemes come with additional social, economic or environmental benefits.
Destruction of tropical rainforests accounts for around 18 percent of the world’s excess GHG emissions per year, with global deforestation rates increasing by about four percent per year. There is an emerging carbon credit type called REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation)
Some people might argue that investments in solar, wind and so forth are better ways to combat global warming in the longer term, and I agree we do need to transition to a non-polluting economy, but let’s be honest – bang for buck, you can save more CO2 from hitting the atmosphere by halting the destruction of rainforests.
In addition, no amount of solar-farms will protect some of the most intense bio-diversity hotspots on Earth. No domestic wind-farm project will transfer wealth to some of the world’s poorest people by giving them financial incentives to keep their forests in place. A recent report valued the ‘Ecosystem Services’ of tropical rainforests as being in the order of $5 trillion annually. Their forests are a precious natural resource, probably the most precious on the planet now, even more so than oil or gold. The people who have lived and died in those forests over generations deserve to be financially rewarded for keeping these services flowing, rather than rewarded (or exploited) in order to destroy the ‘lungs of the Earth’.
In my almost nine years now working in the carbon economy I have come to understand that REDD directly addresses many of the fundamental problems the world faces, from global poverty to climate change and bio-diversity loss. No other technology is as economically dense. Supporting REDD as a carbon compliance mechanism within the various regional cap and trade systems, such as the European Emissions Trading Scheme or, locally, the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme proposed by the Australian Federal Government, would trigger a massive reduction in excess greenhouse gasses. Such a move is a key topic for negotiation at the forthcoming discussions in Copenhagen. Optimistically, the world could have a REDD mandate by 2010, paving the way for one of the biggest re-distributions in wealth since, well, since ever, really.
Yes, paying others to do your emissions reduction for you might seem like a cop out, but the reality is it moves money to where it can do the most environmental good. Also, by committing to a solid offset program, you get a double benefit from any internal emissions reductions you make. Not only are you most likely saving money by using less energy, but you have a smaller offset bill, too.
If your business wants to be truly carbon neutral it must incorporate offsetting into its emission reduction strategy. Choose high quality offset projects with broad collateral benefits and feel proud that you are making a real, quantifiable difference in the world.
Dave Sag is the co-founder and Executive Director of Carbon Planet, an Australian-based global carbon management company and the first such company to be awarded Greenhouse FriendlyTM status for its range of products and services, including Carbon Audits, Carbon Trading, Ethical matchingTM and consumer retail of certified Carbon Credits.