Reduction not offsetting is the key

The Liberal Democrats’ environment spokesman Chris Huhne explores the growth in carbon offsetting, but tells reducing emissions must be central to any policy on climate change.

Carbon offsetting has progressed from minor environmental initiative to major international industry in an astonishingly small period of time.

The growth in offsetting has mirrored the increasing awareness of climate change amongst the general public, and the difficulty of trying to be green while also existing in an economy run on carbon. Offsetting has become fashionable amongst the carbon conscious, but its usefulness as a weapon against climate change is questionable. Does offsetting merely allow polluters to carry on with a clear conscience, or does it genuinely take out of the atmosphere carbon that would otherwise be left in?

In a world in transition to a post-carbon future, offsetting is bound to be attractive to those who are environmentally conscious but who also need to rely on carbon-using technologies like air travel. Offsetting can make up for the effects of carbon that would have emitted anyway, but in the long run the objective has to be to reduce carbon emissions to a sustainable level.

It is often assumed that offsetting organisations do little more than plant trees of absorb the carbon emitted by a particular activity, but as the industry has grown so has the sophistication of techniques involved. With offset companies now investing in renewable schemes and energy efficiency measures as well as forestation projects, there are range of actions that deserve support. Individuals tend to offset as a matter of conscience, but the business is now growing rapidly as an increasing number of firms embrace the concept as a way of highlighting their green credentials. Businesses will offset to reduce their carbon footprint when they cannot make other reductions. Their motives include ethical conviction, compliance with voluntary targets, product branding (“carbon neutral), stakeholder pressure as well more defensive intentions such as the threat of ‘climate litigation’ and the desire to convince government that regulations are not needed.

In short, the business of offsetting is now booming, and consumers and client businesses want assurance that they are getting what is claimed on the packet. Offsetting, in essence, allows the purchasing of carbon credits and the governments suggestion is that a verified scheme should purchase credits from a Kyoto approved scheme. However this form of certification is a blunt tool as it would not take into account the entire offsetting market and any schemes that fall outside the strict barriers would not be accredited. Non Kyoto ‘Verified Emission Reduction’ credits can often match the better standards, such the WWF Voluntary Gold Standard and offer consumers better value for money. It is essential that eventual regulation takes into account the nature of the market and supports the full range of projects available.

At present the market is confusing, and the Liberal Democrats urge two clear tests to simplify the system. There must be transparency so that consumers can see what they are buying and how it works. But the key test is additionality. It is essential to verify carbon offset schemes, so that consumers are guaranteed that their efforts to cut carbon genuinely add to what would have happened anyway. If government certification can achieve this, and embrace the full range of offsetting projects, then carbon offsetting will have part to play as we strive to tackle climate change.