Wednesday, September 03, 2008

new offset opportunities

When Miroslav Ouzky MEP, Chairman of the European Parliament's Environment Committee, admitted he hadn't offset his flight to the climate change talks in Bali, it caused a flutter of minor outrage at his hypocrisy, as if offsetting was self-evidently right.

As I've said elsewhere

Imagine if I ran a factory tipping loads of toxic waste into the river out the back.

Instead of stopping it, I just carry on selling my products and charge you a premium which I then pay to someone else on the other side of the world to stop them tipping a little toxic sludge into their local river.

I would not do anything to abate the poisoning of my river. In fact, as more people bought from me because of my wonderful offsetting practices, my factory’s production and the resulting dumping of toxic waste would increase.

Would such offsetting salve your conscience? Or should you stop buying from me and try to have me imprisoned?

But even as the decoy industries like biofuels and offsetting try to take hold, they are being knocked down. A UK government survey finds that a majority of people agree that carbon offsetting encourages people to carry on doing things that harm the environment.

As they get disillusioned with carbon offsets, perhaps people might want to try other projects instead. The good people at Cheat Neutral explain

When you cheat on your partner you add to the heartbreak, pain and jealousy in the atmosphere.

Cheatneutral offsets your cheating by funding someone else to be faithful and NOT cheat. This neutralises the pain and unhappy emotion and leaves you with a clear conscience.

Coca-Cola have a well documented record for killing trade union activists at their plants in Colombia.

To remedy this situation, they're offering customers the chance to pay an optional 1p on a can of Coke. They'll keep on killing Colombian trade unionists, but the funds will be donated to trade union projects in countries where encouraging trade union activity isn't so important, so you can drink Coke and have a clear conscience.


JM said...

Not to say offsetting's all good, or doesn't have its problems, but the comparison with river pollution doesn't work, because there is does make a difference where the pollution is stopped (i.e. the pollution directly affects *that* particular river), but with greenhouse gas emissions it doesn't. Likewise, you can't 'offset' unionisation, because the problem is specific to a particular country/workplace, and unionisation in country B doesn't have a positive impact on workers in country A; but cutting GHG emissions in country B has exactly the same benefit to cutting them in country A. Ultimately, it's better if emissions in country B and A are cut, of course.

merrick said...

Jess, like Cheat Neutral I use a touch of humour, a slight exaggeration to point out the general principle.

Union offsets would keep the same number of people in unions, albeit targeted at countries that don't need unionisation as much. Carbon offsets target carbon cuts at low-emitting countries and delay the high-emitting societies from confronting their inherent unsustainability.

River-sludge offsets have the same number of rivers affected. Yes, it's a different river, but who's to say that the life in the offset river isn't as important as the life in the river out the back of my factory.

The thing I'm driving at is that these paltry and ineffective offsets stop the worst offenders from feeling responsible for their actions. You can't nail a cat to a wall and say it's OK because you donated to the RSPCA.

Even if we ignore the fact that tree-planting offsets can't work (unless the trees never die or rot), even if we assume all the technology projects really do work (and none of the free low-energy lightbulbs break early or anything), offsetting isn't about cutting the emissions in country B by the amount emitted in country A.

Just like the Clean Development Mechanism and other carbon trading, with offsets it is clearly in the interests of those selling savings to exaggerate the effectiveness, to find projects that are cheap and not be too fussy about whether they actually work.

Beyond that, even if all the accounting were totally watertight, they're a scam. The offset projects save emissions over a long time, often a period of years. Your flight, however, emits in a period of a couple of hours. There's a lag-time between the emission and the saving. If we're constantly offsetting a day's emissions over a period of years, we will never catch up. It's like pouring water in the bath by the bucketful and taking it out by the spoonful.

To be a true offset, you'd need to save the emissions in the same timeframe as they're emitted. So it wouldn't be a couple of quid for your flight but tens of thousands of pounds.

Come to me with a receipt for that and then we can move on to the injustice of the rich paying to continue with high-emitting luxury.

The science is clear. We can't afford to merely stabilise or slightly reduce our emissions. We need big cuts, and swiftly. The longer we do fingers-in-ears things like offsets, the worse we allow climate change to get and the deeper the cuts will have to be later on. We're buying our luxury at the expense of other people's essentials. We can't afford to wait for reductions (which is what offset projects that save emissions over years in lieu of today's emissions do).

It's not merely 'better' if emissions are cut in both country A and country B. It's essential. Offsets are a denial of that.