Monday, July 23, 2007

What are Carbon Offsets?

This month I've been writing about carbon - what a carbon footprint is, how to calculate it, what it has to do with climate change, and so on.

Our modern lifestyles have released a lot of extra carbon into the atmosphere. Can we somehow trap it again? Trees trap carbon, so does the soil. Can I fly to Malaga as long as I pay someone to plant a bunch of trees for me? Does that work?

There's an interesting video about carbon sequestration which you should look at if you have about 9 minutes to spare. It explains how organic farming can help trap some excess carbon in the soil, which just adds to the long list of reasons why organic farming is a good idea. I love the guy who narrates it, Percy Schmeiser. He's pretty rubbish at looking natural in front of a camera and reading from a script, but this somehow makes his statements more convincing. He must know what he's talking about because he sure as hell wasn't chosen for his presenting abilities.

But that's different from paying someone to plant trees for you so you can fly to Malaga with a clear conscience. Carbon offsetting is a last-ditch option. It's like having chemotherapy when you've got cancer. You don't say "Oh, I might as well smoke as many cigarettes as I like because I can always have chemotherapy if I get cancer". Similarly we shouldn't say "It's perfectly OK to live a high-carbon lifestyle because I can afford to offset it by planting loads of trees someplace". It's a radical attempt to fix damage already done, not a "get out of jail free" card.

Yes, we should be planting trees, returning to organic farming, collecting methane and all the other carbon offsetting things. But we should be doing them to offset the damage we have already done, not as a sort of "indulgence" permitting us to carry on with our planet-damaging activities and still sleep soundly.

10 comments:

Joanna said...

Hear hear. I don't know when I've seen the carbon offset myth better exploded.

And if you need information about getting around on trains, seat61.com is THE best website.

Joanna

Anna said...

Tell me you haven't seen www.cheatneutral.com yet?

http://www. scenewon.co.uk/scene_movie.php?movie=485

I think it's currently at number 3...

http://www.topveg.com said...

Great stuff - about time someone explained there was no excuse for 'self indulgence offsetting'. So annoying to see people jumping on planes telling us how many trees they have planted.
Thrift seems to be a forgotten theme

TopVeg

Kati said...

I heard someone explaining recently that burning bio-fuels like wood is carbon neutral and didn't really understand it at the time, although intuitively it "feels right". Afterall, forest fires started by lightning are a natural phenomenon. Any insight you might have?

Melanie Rimmer said...

Hi Kati - burning biofuels is carbon neutral as long as it is from managed woodland, that is none tree (or more) is planted for every tree felled. You can think of the woodland as like a carbon "reservoir". If as much water comes into the water as goes out, then you are "water neutral" (I just made that phrase up as an analogy with "carbon neutral"). But if you start buring down ancient rainforest, for example, and replace it with farmland, then you are draining water out of the reservoir without putting any back. Does that make sense?

The thing about forest fires only applies as long as the burnt out forest is allowed to grow back naturally. If people say "Well this old forest is burnt out now, we may as well put up a shopping mall here and a little housing estate and a bunch of roads", then it's not carbon neutral any more.

Stonehead said...

Well, I think all this carbon neutral hype and offsetting mumbo jumbo is simply a load of cobblers to get people off the hook so they can keep consuming more of everything.

Of course, it's all very well for me to say that but I feel in a position to rant as we've just replaced our second car with a pedal trike; use mainly hand tools to work our croft; have solar hot water; don't use a tumble dryer or dishwasher; have almost no electronic gadgetry; and generally refuse the whole consumer ethic.

When I come across one, just one, businessman or woman, PR person or marketeer, politician, or the like who has actually cut back their "lifestyle", then I'll relent a little. The same goes for so-called environmentalists who lead lavish upper middle class lifestyles while telling everyone else to cut back.

But until then, I'll continue shouting "it's all a load of greenwash cobblers". Only less politely! :D

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