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Waste Wednesday - The Pros and Cons of Carbon Offsetting

  • You are probably aware of the basic principles of carbon offset schemes and their many critiques. But this Waste Wednesday we are here to delve deeper into the topic and help you to determine whether carbon offsetting can play a part in meeting your own personal environmental targets.

    What is carbon offsetting?

    Both individuals and companies can invest into carbon offset schemes as a way of compensating for the carbon dioxide that they have produced through activities such as flying, driving and heating their homes. Carbon offset schemes either prevent CO2 from being released, or remove CO2 already produced, from the atmosphere.

    There are dozens of ways that this can be done, including tree planting or improvements in energy efficiency. If these projects are based in developing countries, they tend to have co-benefits as well. For example, if trees are planted in a wildlife reserve in Africa, not only is CO2 removed from the atmosphere, but habitats are created for animals, bio-diversity is improved and employment is created for local people. Solar powered cookers help to reduce the hours that women and children have to spend collecting wood fuel, enabling children to spend longer in schools as well as bringing about health benefits due to decreases in the air pollution caused by solid fuels. 

    So why is carbon offsetting so controversial?

    George Monbiot famously compared carbon offsetting to the ancient Catholic Church’s practice of selling indulgences, whereby absolution for your sins and reduced time in purgatory is granted in return for financial donations to the church. In his opinion, offsetting allows the rich to feel better about their sinful behaviour without changing their ways.

    But what about those who have already taken measures to reduce their carbon footprint, who then offset to minimise the effect of the emissions they can’t eliminate? As long as you have done your research into whether the scheme you are investing into actually delivers the carbon savings promised, carbon offsetting can’t hurt.

    But make sure to look closely at the scheme; what happens if the scheme you invested in to plant trees sees those same trees cut down just a few years later, therefore not delivering the carbon savings promised? Or if you invest in the distribution of low energy light bulbs in developing countries to learn that the government had planned this same distribution to reduce demand on the electricity grid, meaning that the savings would have occurred anyway even if the carbon offset project never occurred?

    What scheme is best? 

    These issues are why the scheme that you choose to invest in is so important; The Gold Standard is typically considered to be one of the best. Established by WWF and other international NGOs, this carbon offsetting scheme offers the customer a choice of projects based in different countries, all of which support sustainable businesses. For those of you who are UK based, Climate Care is also a good programme.