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In Praise of Offsets
carbon, solar, recycle, climate, renewable

The idea of the carbon offset has been taking a beating for some time, with people lining up to accuse the idea of being nothing more than an excuse for shirking responsibility for cutting emissions.


DECC recently released guidelines on measuring and managing emissions, along with a definition of carbon neutral which included offsets. According to the UK Government, “carbon neutral means that – through a transparent process of calculating emissions, reducing those emissions and offsetting residual emissions – net carbon emissions equal zero.”


But there is a real purpose behind the concept of offsets, both regulated and voluntary, and if the system is being abused then the system should be amended, not attacked. The concept of the carbon offset has been much maligned, but it has also been badly misunderstood.


The purchase of carbon credits is not just helping western companies meet their compliance quotas or salve their consciences. It also acts as an incentive for greater investment into new clean technologies, generating huge flows of global finance from rich to poor, allowing for technology transfer between countries and enabling wider sustainable social and economic development in developing parts of the world, while actively reducing emissions of GHGs.


A central premise of the CDM was to develop clean energy infrastructure for developing nations. GHGs are damaging on a global scale, no matter where they are emitted, so the idea was that the best way to start is by cutting them where it’s cheapest – in the developing world. And it supports acceleration of the local economy to a lower carbon basis. Technology transfer involves the conveying of equipment, knowledge, operating skills and project management expertise from where it’s developed to where it’s needed.

This flow of finance and technologies also allows for far wider social and environmental benefits across the developing world, creating job opportunities and helping retrain the local workforce.


To date, the voluntary carbon market has been the preserve of those projects not easily verified under the CDM. This includes investing in forestry or in smaller programmatic projects where the cost of compliance with Kyoto (certifiers, validators, consultants, and so on) can be prohibitive.  The voluntary market has its own standards, and perhaps the plethora available make it hard to make valid comparisons between different offsets. Yet there is real potential in a number of voluntary standards to create a significant difference. A leading example is the Gold Standard, an NGO initiative that provides tools to develop emission-reduction projects that result in real and additional emission reductions, promote the transition to sustainable energy systems and secure both local and global sustainable development benefits.  


Many criticisms of the offset concept point to the fact that it doesn’t cut emissions from an activity, simply offsets it.  Predominantly the argument is that these projects generating offset credits would have happened anyway, so they’re pointless. But how do you prove a negative? How do you prove that that a developer would not have built a project, or changed to a cleaner fuel, or planted more trees?


The reality is that any contribution to lower emissions is a positive thing. In a perfect world, people would suddenly change their behaviour overnight, but that’s not likely to happen. What the offset system supplies is a transitional process whereby people become slowly more aware of the economic risk of their daily activities.


Carbon offset credits can be as simple as equivalent to 1 tonne of C02 equivalent not emitted, or they could carry a sustainable development aspect. We could demand that any carbon credit generating  project should have a net benefit for the environment; that local sustainable development should be encouraged, or even prescribed; and we should demand globally accepted standards and methodology. It’s up to us to decide which offsets we choose to value, and how.



Posted via email from Conquering Carbon


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