Carbon Offsetting – is it Greenwashing or an Important Answer to Reducing Climate Change?
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I was contacted by a recently launched carbon offsetting company called Climate Wise.
Climate Wise has been founded to give passionate individuals the power to offset their own carbon impact by funding projects that are helping to reduce and reverse climate change.
Now I admit I’ve been a bit cynical about carbon offsetting, as I feared it was just a way to pay to assuage our guilt. So I grilled director Justyn Branton to see what he had to say.
Here’s our conversation…
For people who have never heard of carbon offsetting, can you tell us in one sentence, what it is?
The increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the biggest cause of global warming – impacting safety, health, food and global stability. We all contribute via travel, heating, driving and even eating and wearing clothes. We can change our lifestyles to reduce the impact, but it is still there. Climate Wise takes what is left of your ‘footprint’ and allows you to wipe it through projects which reduce pollution going into the atmosphere and take it out.
We all create a footprint; carbon offsetting empowers the individual to invest in projects that help reduce carbon creation elsewhere. Offsetting their own footprint reduces emissions faster than an individual or a company currently could. These projects help combat global climate change, care for local communities, often providing much needed employment, health improvements and social benefits to impoverished communities
Carbon offsetting has received bad rap in the past for being greenwashing – many people feel it gives permission for ‘consumption as usual’ without the guilt, that it gives us leeway to shift the burden to someone else or that it is simply the ability to buy a license to cook the planet. What is your response to that?
Greenwashing is a broad-brush term applied to companies as a shortcut to offsetting their footprint without trying to change their practises. Without a doubt this does happen in some cases, however, that should not stop individuals and companies from trying to offset their footprint whilst at the same time trying introducing technology and best practise to minimise their footprints. We should remember that some industries will find this easier to do than others due to the technological limitations currently in existence. Change takes time, there are no shortcuts and no magic bullets to combating climate change. We have to use all the methods appropriate to us to minimise their impact. Critics will often say that the projects supported would happen anyway, there is no evidence to suggest this is true. Without outside investment a lot of these projects would never get off the ground or would take far longer to get off the ground.
One person told me they are generally anti-offset due to issues with tree planting schemes displacing people. What is your experience of this, is she right to be concerned?
Random tree planting without proper consideration to the nature of the environment and consequences of the tree planting can and have led to issues from lack of biodiversity in the environment to affecting the current environment, for example tree planting has detrimental effects associated with peat bog environments.
As with most things there is a balance to be struck, trees have tremendous potential to act as a carbon sink, a place to store the excess carbon that human activity has pumped into the atmosphere since the start of the industrial revolution. However, trees are also dark compared to other things that might blanket the land, such as grass. As a result, planting more trees typically makes the land darker. Since dark surfaces absorb more heat, a dark tree-covered surface will trap more of the Sun’s heat – and warm the local climate.
As a result, there is a delicate balance between trees’ ability to take in CO2, reducing warming, and their tendency to trap additional heat and thus create warming. This means planting trees only helps stop climate change in certain places.
Specifically, according to a 2007 study that has been repeatedly confirmed, the best place to plant new trees is the tropics, where trees grow fastest and thus trap the most CO2. In contrast, planting trees in snowy regions near the poles is likely to cause net warming, while planting them in temperate climates.
As always sweeping statements rarely reflect the true nature of things. Tree planting can help if conducted appropriately and in the right places, also let’s not forget that in many places we are replanting trees that used to be there before human activity destroyed them. Often, tree planting is used as a way of problem to understand what the necessary impact is as an example, but other projects are often a lot more impactful
No amount of the wrong trees planted in the wrong place will make up for the damage we do as consumers. How much truth is in this statement?
Again, there is some truth to the statement in that replanting all the trees destroyed will not undo all the CO2 that has entered the atmosphere during the industrial revolution and as. Mentioned previously planting in the wrong place can cause more harm than good. However, planting in the right place with the right planning in place will go some way to reducing the impact and minimising the maximum trajectory that we are currently still on in relation to global warming.
Doing nothing is no solution, but with careful planning, we can go a long way to minimise the impact of global warming going forward. It is important to remember that trees should not be seen as the sole solution, the silver bullet so to speak for combating global warming, rather we should view them as a tool to be used from a toolbox full of tools. It is only when we use all the tools at our disposal that we have a chance to reduce and in the long-term undo some of the damage that has been caused to date.
One of the greatest dangers the planet and the human race face, is and what has been referred to by Robert Gifford as one of the Dragons of Inaction, pessimism about self-efficacy. In other words, we are our own worst enemy, as we doubt our own ability to make a difference. In the face of such a globally complicated problem many people believe they personally can’t make a difference. As individuals we may have a small impact but together, we can affect real change.
On your website you say that you take people’s donations and put them into projects where they can make the biggest difference. What are the advantages to me – wouldn’t I be better off just making a direct donation myself?
Absolutely, we would encourage individuals to support projects, whether it be one of the ones we are currently supporting or some other such project. We give people the opportunity to do so with Climate Wise and we can aggregate donations, select projects and then monitor their impact so there is control and oversight which often as a direct donor you cannot do, but if individuals wish to donate directly then we absolutely would support that. Climate Wise also provides a lot of other benefits outlined below.
The key is to motivate people to try and make a difference, but as previously mentioned their barriers to this happening on the scale that would truly make an impact, I refer to Richard Gifford’s Dragons of Inaction, three of these Dragons I believe are relevant here:
- Pessimism about Self Efficacy – as described above
- Social norming – we as individuals are influenced by what those around us do. By working as a conglomerate, we become more effective in influencing those around us to make a difference, which then goes some way to counteracting people pessimism about their own self efficacy
- Token behaviour – people will quite often make one of choices e.g. a one-off donation or they will reduce their plastic intake for a week, however it is difficult to maintain this on your own. Belonging to a group or an organisation encourages us to adopt long term behavioural changes. In effect we are in this together.
Finally, our role is not just to support projects, that already exist, but to provide the following as well:
- Educational opportunities for schools, communities, companies and individuals that encourage people to make better informed decisions on their lifestyle choices and to empower the next generation to have a voice.
- Create new eco-friendly starter projects around the world that meet the following criteria, reduce the CO2 footprint or capture CO2, improve health, provide jobs and improve the social structure of the local environment, for example empowering equal rights for all members of society etc…
A quick google search returned over 70 million results when I looked for a carbon offset company. The choice is overwhelming. Can you give us three tips for choosing a reputable company to invest with. Is there a governing body or specific questions we should be asking? I’m concerned that I might be given fake data about the impact my investment is having.
There is an overwhelming choice, although not all are focussed on supporting new projects and providing education. Lots are articles on climate change, carbon offsetting or companies such as Easyjet or BP highlighting how they are trying to achieve a carbon neutral footprint.
At Climate-Wise we do not mind who you support as long as it has a positive impact on reducing the amount of CO2 that is pumped into the atmosphere each year or provides a solution for removing the excess CO2 out of the atmosphere.
In starting up climate-wise we tried to address the same questions, how can we be sure that we are supporting the right projects. In the end we focussed on validity, in other we only support projects that meet the following criteria:
- UN created and supported projects
- Projects that meet the Gold Standard Validation
- Companies that have a track record of taking on governments and or companies that have led to legislative change
In meeting these criteria, there is a documented evidence trail through legal and governmental audits that provide validity, or by using a renowned independent validator such as Gold Standard to provide assurance to the quality and reliability of the information and impact of these projects. Within our own organisation we provide audits on the donations received as well as information on the projects that these donations have gone towards.
You mention that as a climate wise hero you will remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. That sounds great – how does that work? And can you clarify the difference between carbon removal and carbon offsetting?
As mentioned, Climate Wise projects must, during the pre-selection stage, show promise in terms of technical quality and be able to meet, with reasonable modifications, the primary selection criteria. In this regard the primary selection criteria must achieve the following:
- Reduce Global CO2 levels; or
- Minimise CO2 input; or
- Prevent CO2 released into the atmosphere
Carbon Offsets, looks to mitigate the impact of an individual’s footprint, for example if you wanted to build a house in the UK, the carbon footprint for construction will be between 50 to 80 tonnes. Heating and living in that house will then add a further 2.7 tonnes per year into the atmosphere. Offsetting looks at that footprint as tries to mitigate the same amount of CO2 happening elsewhere. This is usually done by creating renewable energy projects or other carbon reduction projects to ensure we do not double the amount of CO2 created. Carbon Offsetting effectively acts as a break. For our carbon heroes (Climate Wise-Heroes), they go further by offsetting more than their footprint, thereby further reducing the amount of CO2 that enters the atmosphere. In other words, if my footprint is 6 tonnes and I fund projects that reduce the amount of CO2 or the removal of CO2 by 18 tonnes per year, then I am doing more than just offsetting my impact.
Carbon Removal in simple terms is taking Carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it in carbon sinks, for example, soil, trees, rocks, the ocean bed etc… and so carbon removal is part of a carbon offset solution.
Currently around the world most projects are Carbon reduction projects, solar, wind farms, biogas, wood burners, solar cookers etc… However, we actively support REDD which captures and stores carbon through the protection and redevelopment of the remaining tropical rainforests. We are aware that some parts of the forest produce excess CO2 however, in their entirety they capture and store more O2 than they release.
Going forward one of the companies we are currently in discussions with is Blue Agri, we are identifying crops and farming techniques that lead to Soil Carbon Sequestration. Again, since the industrial revolution the level of CO2 that was sequestered in the soil has diminished. Through utilising the right crops and farming techniques we can start to sequester some of the atmospheric CO2 back into the soil. This has the added benefit of enhancing agricultural yields, providing locally sourced food which in return reduces the CO2 footprint for food for local communities. We are also identifying other projects such as the re-introduction of sea grass. Sea grass in areas around the coast of the United Kingdom and Bermuda as examples have reduced significantly. Over the last 100 years the UK has lost an estimated 92% of its seagrass meadows. Seagrass plants have an excellent capacity for taking up and storing carbon in the oxygen-depleted seabed, where it decomposes much slower than on land. This oxygen-free sediment traps the carbon in the dead plant material which may then remain buried for hundreds of years.
You sell merchandise online. Some of the items I understand are helping reduce impact such as reusable straws, a travel cup and a bamboo lunch box, but I was concerned to see the turtle and polar bear air fresheners for the car – surely these are made with toxic chemicals and are an unnecessary disposable item. How do you justify selling these products?
These branded car air fresheners are manufactured in the UK and are constructed out of pulpboard from Sustainable Forests and scented with natural oil fragrances. The idea is to create a printed car air freshener that makes a great promo by utilising animal designs that resonate with the public and highlighting the beauty of the natural world that is at risk if we do nothing. Every product line we have, we have endeavoured to source from eco and sustainable sources or to make the product reusable such as our water bottles, metal straws so as to reduce the impact of our disposable culture. This holds true for our recycled plastic key rings, our reusable hand sanitisers and as mentioned our bamboo lunch boxes.
If I take a flight, the carbon I emit stays in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. But if someone plants a tree on my behalf there is no guarantee your offset will be permanent. The tree might die or be burned. How do we know that a project is actually delivering the claimed reduction in carbon tons?
Both points are valid, carbon will and can stay in the atmosphere for a long time. Also no one guarantees the survival of trees in the future, any number of disasters both human and natural could lead to the destruction of planted trees. However, risks can be managed, and organisation will look to maintain their initiatives to the best of their ability going forward. Pressure from the public is slowly making governments identify more protected areas to try and maintain what they have left. So, whilst this is an issue on the public agenda, I believe there will be pressure from the public to ensure the success of such projects.
Our projects are not focussed on planting trees, currently rather we look to help sustain the current Rainforests, we also want a diverse portfolio, both in projects and geographically. This has been done intentionally to mitigate against both natural disasters and human made disasters, such as political instability. As mentioned, before it is important to use all the tools at your disposal contained in the toolbox, rather than just focussing on one to be the solution to all our problems.
As for the final part of this question, I refer to your previous question about how to identify the right Carbon Offset Company. We look to work with accredited projects through Gold Standard that independently verify the impact of the projects, or we work organisations and projects set up by the UN. Going forward with our own projects we look to have them independently verified by Gold Standard or another recognised body with credibility as an independent verifier. At Climate Wise we believe in reliability and credibility, to achieve this we need independent organisation to verify and guarantee the impact of the projects we support.
If carbon offsetting is only ever be a small tool to fix a much larger problem, what simple tips can you offer people to reduce their carbon footprint on a day to day basis? And please mention if you could only choose one thing to do, what is the one thing that, in your opinion, offers the greatest impact?
At Climate Wise we produce opinion pieces and blogs on the changes that we as individuals can make to our lives. Our intention is to constantly share advice and information to allow people to make informed decisions on their lifestyle choices.
However, we do not want this to only come from us and therefore, we invite people from around the world to provide us with ideas which we will load onto our educational pages and Noah and Bookie’s corner. It is better to have millions of people providing solutions which we are happy to share with the world, rather than working in a silo pretending to have all the answers.
In combating climate change, we are all on a journey and we can all learn and get better as we share practice.
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