Offsetting carbon emissions
The concept of offsetting your carbon emissions is controversial but beginning to take hold.
James Fair explains how it works and assesses the main players in the market.
WHAT DOES ‘OFFSETTING current rates. The impact this will bought really are being achieved, but carbon calculators assume
CARBON EMISSIONS’ MEAN? have on both people and wildlife but only one – atmosfair – adheres optimum fuel efﬁciency for all
Every day, we release carbon scarcely bears thinking about. 100 per cent to principles laid ﬂights. They also fail to take into
dioxide, the gas that is the biggest down by the ‘Gold Standard’ – a account emissions of other gases,
cause of climate change, into the SO YOU HAND OVER SOME MONEY sort of Soil Association for carbon such as nitrous oxide.
atmosphere as a result of burning AND THE PROBLEM’S SOLVED? offset schemes.
fossil fuels and deforestation. To Of course not. Everyone has to do WHAT ABOUT CALCULATING THE
offset these emissions, we can pay more to reduce their emissions. HOW DO I CALCULATE EMISSIONS OFFSET? IS THAT SIMPLE?
an organisation to absorb or But say you’re an avid wildlife FOR A FLIGHT, SAY, TO KENYA? Theoretically, yes. Take a scheme
reduce emissions elsewhere – enthusiast and you dream of taking Any of the organisations overleaf that invests in green technology,
either by planting trees or investing a trip to see the Masai Mara can do it with their ‘carbon such as fuel-efﬁcient cooking
in energy-efﬁciency or renewable- migration. By seeing wildlife in its calculators’, but there is a stoves. “All you have to do is work
energy schemes. native country, you are giving it a problem – estimates for a return out how much energy the scheme
value and helping to conserve it. ﬂight from London to Nairobi vary creates and therefore how much
BUT IS CLIMATE CHANGE But you are also contributing to from 1.26 to 4.68 tonnes of carbon carbon has been prevented from
REALLY SUCH A BIG DEAL? carbon emissions, and this is dioxide. Dietrich Brockhagen of escaping into the atmosphere,”
The consensus of climate where offsetting comes in. atmosfair, the organisation that says Dominick Spracklen, an
scientists is that artiﬁcial levels of comes up with the higher number, expert in carbon offset schemes
Illustration by Flatliner/Debut Art
carbon dioxide and other HOW DO I KNOW MY PAYMENT says other carbon calculators are from Harvard University.
greenhouse gases are raising the WILL OFFSET MY EMISSIONS? too simplistic and therefore
temperature of the Earth’s Choosing the right offset massively underestimate the true WHAT ABOUT TREE PLANTING?
atmosphere. One accepted organisation (see overleaf) is ﬁgure. Most aeroplanes, for Again, theoretically yes. According
scenario is that temperatures will crucial. Most are monitored by instance, achieve greatest fuel to Spracklen, research has shown
rise by between 2 and 3˚C by 2050 independent bodies that check the efﬁciency when ﬂying a distance that one hectare of forest that is
if emissions continue to increase at emissions reductions you have of between 2,000 and 4,000km, planted will remove about 100
76 BBC Wildlife January 2007
HUMMINGBIRDS OR TIGERS? WHERE YOUR MONEY GOES
The money you pay to offset your carbon emissions can go to a huge range of different projects –
here we proﬁle three particular schemes, two of which greatly beneﬁt wildlife.
Hummingbird: World Land Trust; solar lighting: CarbonNeutral; tiger: ShinYoshino/FLPA
ECUADOR TREE PLANTING INDIA AND SRI LANKA SOLAR LIGHTING INDIA BIOGAS DIGESTERS
The World Land Trust is carrying out The CarbonNeutral Company is using carbon The Co-op Bank (via Climate Care) is funding a
reforestation for the purpose of creating carbon offset payments to support solar-powered project outside Ranthambore National Park that
offsets in two of its reserves in Ecuador – lighting installations in rural homes in southern is tackling deforestation within the park and
Buenaventura in the south and Yanacocha in the India and Sri Lanka. Many people in the project helping to preserve tiger habitat. Funds from
north. Both harbour bird species that are areas have no access to grid electricity and offsetting the Co-op’s mortgages – one tonne of
classed as critically endangered by the IUCN – therefore use kerosene lamps. These produce carbon dioxide per house per year – buy biogas
the el oro parakeet and the black-breasted carbon emissions, are responsible for causing digesters, which produce methane from cattle
pufﬂeg, a type of hummingbird (above). Both respiratory infections and other illnesses in dung to fuel cooking stoves. Carbon emissions
areas consist of degraded montane and home owners and are a ﬁre risk. It’s estimated are offset because it results in fewer trees being
subtropical forests that have been reduced to that the project will reduce carbon emissions by unsustainably harvested for fuel wood. Methane
10 per cent of their original cover in Ecuador. about 12,500 tonnes between 2004 and 2008. is also regarded as a renewable energy source.
tonnes of carbon (or 367 tonnes of SO I SHOULDN’T PLANT TREES go for tree planting in a tropical
carbon dioxide) from the TO OFFSET MY EMISSIONS? country (see the World Land Trust
atmosphere over about 50 years, Well, it’s not that simple. About 40 and Envirotrade). Third, double the CARBON EMISSIONS
though these ﬁgures will vary per cent of the increase in carbon estimates for carbon emissions This is really a shortening of
according to the tree species, dioxide levels since 1850 can be from aviation if you want to be ‘carbon dioxide emissions’, the
climate and other factors. attributed to deforestation – it is, certain (unless you use atmosfair). main greenhouse gas. Some
in other words, a major driver of organisations talk about tonnes
IS THIS SCIENCE ACCEPTED? climate change. Spracklen argues WHERE DOES THAT LEAVE US? of carbon, some about tonnes of
Not completely. The Gold that buying carbon offsets could Don’t rely on carbon offsetting to carbon dioxide – the important
Standard does not endorse tree give considerable impetus to the salve a guilty conscience. You thing is that 3.67 tonnes of carbon
planting, according to conservation of tropical should aim to reduce energy dioxide = 1 tonne of carbon.
spokesperson Michael Schlup, rainforests. Organisations such as consumption in all areas of your
because “the science behind the the World Land Trust (see above) life. “It should not be a licence to
All the offset organisations have
calculation is not that simple.” offset your emissions to beneﬁt pollute for guilt-free motoring or
devices of differing complexity
There are other problems, too. wildlife and biodiversity. ﬂying,” says Greenpeace UK’s
on their websites that calculate
How do you know that someone climate campaigner Charlie
how much carbon you emit
won’t cut the trees down again or HOW DO I CHOOSE A GOOD Kronick. Guardian writer George
either from a ﬂight, your home
that they would not have been OFFSET SCHEME? Monbiot is a trenchant critic of
or your car.
planted anyway? Some carbon Look at how the organisation is carbon offset schemes, describing
offsets have been achieved by monitored and by whom. The Gold them as the equivalent of buying CARBON TRADING
replanting previously deforested Standard would appear best at “complacency, political apathy This refers to people or
land with vast monocultures. this stage because it is rigorous and self-satisfaction.” Others companies buying and selling
and independent of the schemes it argue that the very act of the right to emit carbon dioxide.
assesses. Second, all these calculating your emissions is the This ties in with offsetting your
projects have broader beneﬁts. If ﬁrst step to reducing them, and carbon emissions, because in a
you want social gains, go for that offset schemes could help to sense you are buying the right to
energy-efﬁciency schemes in stimulate emissions reductions. emit the amount you have offset.
developing countries (see The One thing’s for sure – both the In the business, these are known
Carbon Neutral Company, above). issue of climate change and as ‘voluntary retail offsets’.
If biodiversity is more important, carbon offsetting are here to stay.
January 2007 BBC Wildlife 77
CARB O N E M I SS I O N S : T H E FACT S
There are some things we can say with
certainty about carbon emissions:
WORLD LAND TRUST CLIMATE CARE
☎ 01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org
☎ 0845 054 4422; www.worldlandtrust.org
Status Registered charity. Status Not-for-proﬁt company trust, limited
Friends of the Earth has calculated that if
Offsetting activities Tree planting. by guarantee, owned by a private company.
aviation use grows as forecast, then carbon Offsetting activities 80 per cent goes into
What does it invest in and where?
emissions from air travel will increase by Rainforest regeneration in developing renewable-energy and energy-saving projects
300 per cent between 1990 and 2030. By countries such as Ecuador. and 20 per cent into rainforest restoration.
2050, aviation could represent 15 per cent of Scale of offsetting activities Offset 8,000 What does it invest in and where? A wide
global carbon dioxide emissions. It’s tonnes of CO2 in 2005 and expects to offset range of projects, from energy-efﬁcient stoves
estimated that a tax of €0.125 (about 8p) per between 500,000 and 700,000 tonnes in 2006. in Bangladesh and Madagascar to biogas
litre – one ﬁfth of the tax on petrol for road Is there any independent certiﬁcation? Yes digesters in India.
vehicles – would reduce emissions – methodologies for monitoring the amount Scale of offsetting activities About 150,000
(through decreased air travel) by of carbon absorbed by trees were developed tonnes of CO2 in 2005-06, with 20-30 per cent
10 per cent. in conjunction with Leeds and Harvard of sales to individuals.
Universities and projects run to guidelines set Is there any independent certiﬁcation? For
out by the Clean Development Mechanism. each project, it engages an independent third
All reports are available to the public. party to assess emissions before the project
Summary An organisation whose principal was initiated and after. There is ongoing
aim is not to offset carbon emissions, but to monitoring to see that targets are being met.
preserve and enhance biodiversity in areas Summary Well monitored with projects that
of extreme importance, such as tropical not only offset CO2 emissions, but help to
100 tonnes rainforests. 7/10 preserve wildlife habitats. 6.5/10
CARBON CALCULATOR (London-Nairobi return) CARBON CALCULATOR (London-Nairobi return)
FORESTRY CO2 EMISSIONS 1.5 tonnes CO2 EMISSIONS 1.92 tonnes
For every hectare of land that is reforested, COST £11.18 COST £14.37
100 tonnes of carbon (or 367 tonnes of
carbon dioxide) are removed from the
atmosphere. The average Briton emits 3.6
tonnes of carbon dioxide
a year, so to offset
they need to
replant at least
ENVIROTRADE CLIMATE FRIENDLY
www.envirotrade.co.uk ☎ 0061 2 9281 0358 (Australia);
(or 100m2) www.climatefriendly.com
Status Registered UK company. Mozambique
subsidiary has partial not-for-proﬁt status. Status Company.
Offsetting activities Tree planting plus Offsetting activities Renewable energy only.
20 bn tonnes
prevention of illegal logging and slash-and-
What does it invest in and where? Mostly
What does it invest in and where? Challicum
Hills windfarm in Australia and Te Apiti
windfarm in New Zealand.
poverty alleviation on the edge of Gorongosa Scale of offsetting activities The company
Humans are responsible for producing 20 National Park in Mozambique. 80 per cent of declined to offer any ﬁgures.
billion tonnes of carbon dioxide every year. the money comes from EU grants, the rest Is there any independent certiﬁcation?
The oil company BP alone is directly and from offsetting CO2 emissions. Yes – its projects are certiﬁed by the Gold
indirectly responsble for the production of Scale of offsetting activities Offset 85,000 Standard and Green Power accreditation.
1.5 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases tonnes of CO2 over a three-year period. Most Summary While Climate Friendly is
(which include other gases besides carbon sales are not directly to the public. rigorously monitored, unlike many other
dioxide), about 5 per cent of the world total. Is there any independent certiﬁcation? offsetting organisations, it generates no
There are no ﬁgures for the worldwide scale Validation carried out by the School of social or additional environmental gains
of the offset market, but the CarbonNeutral Geophysicists at the University of Edinburgh. from the projects it invests in, which are both
Company, one of the largest providers, Summary Dual social and environmental windfarms. The website does offer a good
estimates it has offset 750,000 tonnes of beneﬁts achieved through the Mozambique explanation of where your money goes, and
carbon dioxide since 1997 project, but it is largely funded by grants not you can calculate emissions from domestic
– about 0.004 per cent of offsetting emissions. 7/10 use and car travel. 7/10
yearly global emissions.
CARBON CALCULATOR (Selecting ‘long haul’ option) CARBON CALCULATOR (London-Nairobi return)
CO2 EMISSIONS 3.75 tonnes CO2 EMISSIONS 4.06 tonnes
COST £26 COST AU$85.82 (£35)
Investing in solar-powered water heating
in India will not only help local people but
offset your carbon emissions, too. ON TEST
☎ 0845 094 2620; www.co2balance.com
Status Currrently a limited company but is
looking at other options.
Offsetting activities Largely UK-forestry
based, but has set up energy-efﬁciency
schemes in two developing countries.
What does it invest in and where?
Reforestation of land in the UK with only
native broadleaved trees. Provision of energy-
efﬁcient appliances in Kenya and Sierra Leone.
Scale of offsetting activities Expects to offset
25,000 tonnes of CO2 in 2006.
Is there any independent certiﬁcation?
The School of Conservation Sciences
at Bournemouth University validates its
calculations and methods.
Summary Many experts are sceptical about
reforestation in the UK as a way of offsetting
CO2 emissions – as a developed country
signed up to the Kyoto Protocol, the UK has
emissions reductions targets anyway. 5.5/10
CARBON CALCULATOR (London-Nairobi return)
CO2 EMISSIONS 1.51 tonnes Is there any independent certiﬁcation?
Yes – this is necessary to achieve Gold
Standard status. Actual certiﬁcation carried
out by TÜV SÜD Group (www.tuev-sued.de).
Summary Appears to be the most
rigorously monitored offsetting organisation
☎ 0049 30 288835682; www.atmosfair.de and has the most sophisticated approach to
Status Not-for-proﬁt, registered charity assessing CO2 emissions from ﬂights. The
easy-to-use website has useful information
CARBONNEUTRAL CO according to German law.
Offsetting activities Those that adhere to
on how the offsets are calculated and
includes a list of tour operators that only
☎ 020 7833 6000; www.carbonneutral.com the Gold Standard – ie, atmosfair offsets
Status Company. offer holidays without ﬂights. But loses
into energy-saving projects only.
points because you can’t work out your
Offsetting activities 80 per cent renewable- What does it invest in and where? Solar
car travel or home emissions. 8/10
energy and energy-efﬁciency projects and water heating in India, water cleaning in a
20 per cent forestry. palm oil plant in Thailand, self-driven water
pumps in Sri Lanka. CARBON CALCULATOR (London-Nairobi return)
What does it invest in and where? Projects
CO2 EMISSIONS 4.68 tonnes
range from a Gold Standard wind power Scale of offsetting activities 10,000 tonnes
COST €94 (£63)
scheme in New Zealand to energy-efﬁcient of CO2 in 2005.
lighting in the Caribbean and forestry projects
in the UK, Mexico and Uganda.
Scale of offsetting activities For 18 months
up to June 2006, it committed to offsetting CHOOSING THE WINNER...
378,423 tonnes of CO2 through corporate
clients and 14,869 through individuals. IT MAY SEEM COUNTER-INTUITIVE that BBC Land Trust gets top marks in this department
Is there any independent certiﬁcation? All Wildlife’s recommendation for the best carbon for its reforestation work in the Ecuadorian
projects veriﬁed on an ongoing basis by The offset organisation is the one that will cost you Andes. Rare birds and other species will
Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Management. the most, but there is a good reason for this. It beneﬁt from investment in its projects.
Summary Forestry projects are mainly in the is the only one where all the projects adhere to Of the others, Climate Care’s biogas digester
UK, raising questions about whether carbon the internationally accepted standard on project is helping to preserve tiger habitat in
emissions have been truly offset. Otherwise, carbon offsets, plus it has the most rigorous India and Envirotrade is improving the buffer
well monitored. 6/10 approach to calculating carbion dioxide zones of Gorongosa National Park in
emissions from ﬂights. What’s an extra £60 on Mozambique. If you really want to feel that you
CARBON CALCULATOR (London-Nairobi return) top of a holiday to Kenya, anyway? have made a difference, the best advice is to
CO2 EMISSIONS 1.5 tonnes
Other organisations, however, are likely to avoid investing your carbon cash in UK-based
COST £11.10 (UK forestry) up to £13.98 (wind power)
do more directly for wildlife, and the World forestry projects.
January 2007 BBC Wildlife 79