Feature

The truth about carbon offsets

G Magazine

Are carbon offsets more about your conscience than saving the planet?

tree planting

Credit: iStockphoto

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Brad Pitt has a forest in Bhutan. Jake Gyllenhaal has one in Mozambique. Leonardo DiCaprio's is on some land near Leipzig, Germany, that used to house Russian medium-range ballistic missiles.

Is a private forest the new must-have accessory for Hollywood A-listers? It is if they want to show their green cred.

But carbon neutrality is not just for celebrities. We all produce climate-changing greenhouse gases in the course of our daily activities - Australians more than most. There are many greenhouse gases, but the sum total is expressed as an equivalent amount of the most common one - carbon dioxide (CO2).

In 2004, Australia released the equivalent of 564.7 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere; that's 27.2 tonnes for every Australian - the most, per capita, of any country on Earth.

So how do you do your bit for the planet? For many Australians, air travel is a necessity, and while switching from the car to the bike, bus, or train works for some trips, there are times when a car is the only thing that can get you where you're going.

This is where offsetting comes in. Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grow - a process known as sequestration. So by planting enough trees, you can compensate for those emissions.

"The three key words are reduce, renew, and offset," says Joel Fleming, founder and managing director of Australian offsetting company Climate Friendly.

"Reduce your energy consumption through efficiency measures and low carbon fuels. The next thing is to switch to renewable energy." After you've done all that, he says, the third thing is to offset the emissions you can't get rid of.

For between $10 and $30 per tonne, a new crop of companies like Climate Friendly will invest in a project that removes CO2 from the atmosphere to compensate for the stuff you've emitted.

Easy! You can take the car and plane trips you can't avoid, and as long as you buy enough carbon credits to offset the CO2 emitted, you come out carbon neutral.

Trees VS renewables

Planting trees is one of the most popular ways of removing the gas that's up there already.

"When you fly from here to London," says Dave Sag, co-founder of South Australia-based offsetter Carbon Planet, "you're putting emissions into the atmosphere, so you need to do something that will remove emissions from the atmosphere."

Sag's company acts as an intermediary, arranging to plant trees for customers in the forests of New South Wales.

Non-profit Victorian offset organisation Greenfleet concentrates on neutralising vehicle emissions, and has planted a total of more than two million native trees of various species in every Australian state except Tasmania.

Some forestry offset initiatives rely on 'monoculture' plantations made up of a single fast-growing species to sequester carbon. According to Greenfleet, though, planting a mixture of native species is important because it creates complete ecosystems that increase biodiversity, provide habitats for wildlife, and improve water quality, beyond just hoovering up carbon.

The big catch with forest carbon sequestration is that plantations only remove carbon gradually. Trees capture carbon over the course of their lives, so it can take forty years or more for a tree to reach its full storage or sequestration potential - so it doesn't really offset your carbon at the time you produce it.

And at the end of its life, when a tree dies and decomposes, a lot of that carbon re-enters the atmosphere until another tree grows up to re-capture it. "So you've got to commit that land forever for 40 years" or the captured carbon is lost, says Ian Jones, an expert in climate science from the University of Sydney.

In addition, planting forests reduces the amount of land available for agriculture. And a body of scientific evidence suggests that, when planted outside the tropics (especially in the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere), such plantations may actually contribute to global warming rather than fighting it.

A forest canopy is darker than bare ground and so absorbs more heat, making the Earth warmer in spite of the reduction in carbon loads.

Renewables

Ben Pearson, an energy campaigner for Greenpeace Australia, cautions against tree offsets. "The problems with carbon sequestration … are just huge," he says. "We strongly encourage people not to be involved in schemes that use trees to sequester carbon. Look for ones that invest money in renewable energy such as wind farms."

Renewable energy offsets reflect a different approach to reducing the global carbon load. Rather than sucking up the carbon that's already in the atmosphere, they invest money in projects that reduce the amount of carbon being emitted in the first place.

But don't confuse renewable energy offsets with the GreenPower you buy for your home. While the two often come from the same clean energy projects, GreenPower directly replaces coal-fired electricity with the renewable kind, whereas offsets compensate for carbon generated through other activities (such as travel) by producing additional renewable energy and pumping it into the grid, thereby displacing coal-derived energy and preventing CO2 emissions.

Renewable energy projects that produce offsets include solar and wind farms, as well as bio-fuel plantations, landfill gas capture, geothermal and biomass initiatives.

The beauty of renewable energy offsets is that "if you buy a renewable energy credit today from a wind farm that's actually on the ground today, it's actually saving a tonne of CO2 from going up into the atmosphere today, and that means that the atmosphere actually has less CO2 in it," says Climate Friendly's Joel Fleming.

Be that as it may, Courtney Hayes, the managing director of WA's Elementree, is standing by his company's policy of planting of eucalypts, acacias, and other native species.

"Reduction is critical, but even if everyone on Earth stopped completely stopped emitting tomorrow, the globe would still unavoidably warm." Hayes says natural systems like forests are the only way we know of to remove the carbon dioxide that has already been emitted. They also help to rehabilitate land that is degraded.

Not all credits are created equal

In August 2002, the British melodic pop group Coldplay released their second album, A Rush of Blood to the Head. To offset some of the environmental damage caused by the album's production, the group announced they would pay to plant 10,000 mango trees in southern India through the British company Future Forests (since renamed The CarbonNeutral Company).

But in April 2006, the British newspaper The Telegraph reported that at least 40 per cent of the saplings had died in the subsequent years through lack of access to water - negating the carbon sequestration they were to provide.

The CarbonNeutral Company said it would make good the losses by planting more trees in a different project in Chiapas, Mexico, but the story brings up a major issue with offsets: how do you make sure your offsets are working?

Atmospheric carbon can't be seen, and the tonne you're paying to remove doesn't have your name on it and could be anywhere in the world. So how do you know whether it's really been offset?

Your safest bet is to buy a certified offset. The offset market is growing fast, and several groups have developed standards to certify carbon credits to ensure you get what you pay for.

New South Wales is the only Australian state that has certified forestry offsets at present - guaranteed stable sequestration for 100 years - and the NSW Government also creates certificates for carbon offsets based on emissions reductions.

Nationwide, the same Green Power program that supplies accredited renewable energy to your home can also be used for offsets. Additionally, the Australian Greenhouse Office's Greenhouse Friendly Program certifies both forestry programs and clean energy providers.

Offsets sold by Climate Friendly are based on renewable energy it purchases from Green Power-accredited wind farms in Victoria and WA.

But what about international projects? Growing our own renewable energy industry is important, but buying offsets from developing countries pumps money into their own fledgling clean energy projects. International projects can't be accredited by GreenPower - and other countries have varying standards, if any.

That's why Victoria-based not-for-profit organisation Climate Positive and others use guidelines such as the international Voluntary Carbon Standard, set to launch later this year.

"It's designed to be a global benchmark," says Brendan Condon, director of Climate Positive. The product of collaboration between The Climate Group, the International Emissions Trading Association and the World Economic Forum, the standard "creates offset products that represent real, permanent, transparent, independently verified carbon offsets that are additional to business as usual," he says.

The main thing to look for in international offsets is that they're part of Clean Development Mechanism projects - those that are run under the auspices of the Kyoto Protocol.


Offset Schmoffset

"Today you can live exactly as you please as long as you give your [money] to one of the companies selling indulgences … By selling us a clean conscience, the offset companies are undermining the necessary political battle to tackle climate change at home," he wrote in The Guardian newspaper.

Monbiot is not the only one with reservations.

"People want to do the right thing about climate change but they're not sure what they can do," says Greenpeace's Pearson, "so it's attractive when someone comes along and says, 'If you give me $20 I'll offset all your emissions'. People think, 'I can continue driving my car and just buy carbon offsets'".

And it is true; nearly all offset companies allow you to offset as much as you want: car and plane trips, home energy usage, and even things such the impact of meat in your diet, all without making any behavioural changes.

Climate Friendly, for example, offers a 'citizen' package on their website; for $800 per year, an Australian can offset all 28 tonnes of their contribution to global carbon emissions.

However, says Fleming, the idea behind the package is that people can make a major impact immediately, and then make the necessary behavioural changes over the following months.

Although his company offers comprehensive offsets as well, Condon thinks that behavioural change must be the first step.

"I think that offsets can play a part in a climate protection strategy, but they cannot be used as a mini license to pollute. We must reduce our footprint dramatically before we offset," he says. "At Climate Positive we're very clear; we want passionate partners in reducing global warming; not passive consumers of a product."