LONDON — So you took that transatlantic flight, paid $20 to offset the greenhouse gases ejected by the plane, and reduced your carbon footprint. But did you really help save the planet?
As the clamor over global warming gets ever louder, the practice of carbon offsetting – paying a third party to remove or otherwise offset an amount of carbon equivalent to the volume emitted – is now falling under close scrutiny.
Environmental experts are warning that some projects are less effective than others, and say the market urgently needs some form of regulation: Carbon-offsetting prices vary enormously, from around $10 to $50 a ton, and consumers have little idea what they are actually getting for their money.
"Part of the problem is that there are no real standards for carbon offsetting," says Richard Tarasofsky, a sustainable development expert at the London-based Chatham House think tank. Without international certification, he says, the new fad could quickly be compromised.
Against this backdrop, Britain has announced plans to become the first country to set a standard on how effective and worthy offsetting projects are. A "kitemark," or official logo,will be introduced in the autumn to "raise awareness so that consumers understand what offsetting is and how it can contribute to tackling climate change," explains one government official on customary condition of anonymity.
But which projects will get the nod? Environmentalists tend to agree that the best are those that seek to reduce emissions, such as renewable energy projects, rather than those that sequester carbon already in the atmosphere, like reforestation projects, as no one can say for certain whether a new tree will survive to absorb a lifetime's carbon dioxide.
"It's very difficult to measure the emissions reduction from a tree or a new forest – it depends on where it is grown," says Kirsty Clough, an offsetting expert with the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF). And at the end of the day, she points out, "it's not driving a lower-carbon economy."
Concern is growing that the British program will not always promote the best projects. The new standard will be based on an international system already established by the Kyoto process known as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). This, experts say, tends to favor large industrial schemes to reduce other harmful gases like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and methane over smaller projects that tackle carbon emissions.
"This doesn't help us move to low-carbon economies," warns Simon Retallack of London's Institute for Public Policy Research. "CFCs are a low-hanging fruit much easier to reduce."
Michael Buick, a spokesman for Climate Care, one of Britain's largest offsetting companies, says that bringing in CDM-style standards would undermine some of Climate Care's worthiest projects, such as an efficient-stoves program in Mexico. One new stove alone, he says, cuts 1.5 tons of CO2 a year.
"There are very worthwhile types of project that the Kyoto system has not yet found a way of including," says Mr. Buick. "If the government standard advises people only to buy [Kyoto-approved schemes] and if people follow that advice, then demand will dry up for projects like our efficient stoves in Mexico and that would mean we could no longer fund those kinds of projects."
The WWF is urging governments instead to adopt its so-called Gold Standard, a hallmark that sets stringent criteria including energy efficiency, sustainable development, transition to lower-carbon energy systems, and "additionality" – whether a project would have not taken place without the offset investment. Under this standard, reforestation, large hydroelectric power schemes, and incineration energy are excluded.
Carbon offsetting is growing exponentially. Buick's company has moved from 100,000 tons of CO2 "sold"in 2004-05 to a forecast of 1 million tons in 2006-07. Worldwide estimates expect the market, worth around $35 million in 2005, to top $500 million in the next three years.
Despite the reservations about the British "kitemark" scheme, the government is at least showing signs of action. It claims it will double its Kyoto target – to reduce emissions by 12.5 percent by 2010. It is poised next month to introduce a climate-change law – another world first, according to environment minister David Miliband – that will propose targets to cut emissions and encourage people to measure their own carbon footprint.
And it is also looking into the feasibility of issuing each individual with a 'personal carbon account', complete with credits that could be traded and redeemed against energy purchases in a similar fashion to a Europe-wide emissions trading scheme which provides a financial incentive for industry to reduce emissions.
Top politicians meanwhile have suddenly recognized the importance of green credentials. When Tony Blair was criticized for flying for a winter holiday to Barbados, his top ministers – including putative successor Gordon Brown – quickly let it be known how modest their own personal international travel is and how assiduously they offset their carbon emissions.
Yet many environmentalists say there is a lot more that countries like Britain must do to reduce emissions and get people to offset. Friends of the Earth warn that aviation emissions in Britain are rising sharply. The Institute for Public Policy Research, a British think tank, is calling for offsetting to be the "default" position when it comes to flying.
"It's no good just waiting for people to sign up voluntarily," says Mr. Retallack. "The public are much more likely to go along with offsetting if it's assumed they will offset but are given a box to tick if they don't want to."