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The Sunday Times: Carbon offset deals are trading in guilt

Sunday October 29, 2006

Schemes that calculate your CO2 emissions so you can pay into green projects may not always do what they claim, writes Jessica Bown 
 
COMPANIES are capitalising on consumers’ guilt about climate change with schemes that offer to offset your carbon emissions, but experts say there are better ways to go green — and save money in the process.

Carbon offsetting, where you put a small amount of money towards environmental projects to offset your carbon emissions, has become big business, worth an estimated £60m a year, compared with £20m in 2005. 
 
Firms such as BP, Shell, British Airways and Land Rover all offer websites that calculate how much carbon your activities emit and then tell you how much you should contribute to green-energy projects. However, these schemes are unregulated, so consumers have little comeback if the money is not used in the way they hoped and a sizeable chunk of any donation goes towards their overheads.

The French-owned gas and electricity supplier EDF Energy last week launched an initiative called Climate Balance, which will invest in a wide range of sustainable projects. An average household, which produces about six tonnes of carbon emissions a year, could offset this with a payment of about £40 that EDF will put towards green-energy projects.

However, although the pricing has not been fixed yet, those who sign up will probably be on its standard tariff, which costs £943 a year for a medium user, compared with £842 on the cheapest tariff from rival Npower. Consumer groups say that you would be better off moving to the cheapest provider on the market and then using energy-efficiency measures to reduce your carbon emissions by two tonnes, which would save a further £300 a year.

BP also has a scheme, called Target Neutral, which it claims allows users to offset the CO2 emissions produced by their cars by putting money towards projects such as wind farms in India and other parts of the developing world.

Standalone carbon-offsetting websites, aimed at those concerned about the damage done to the environment by their flights and car journeys, have also been springing up in recent months.

A typical one-way flight to Australia will produce about three tonnes of CO2 per person, but the firms behind the schemes argue that a donation of about £30 will neutralise these emissions.

Climate Care (climatecare.org), which claims to be a not-for-profit trust, offers an easy-to-use flight offsetter on its website, which then shows you how much you should donate. It takes 40% to cover costs and says that you can be sure the money goes where you want it because it has an external steering committee checking that donations are used well.
 
 Other alternatives include CO2 Balance (co2balance.com), and Carbon Footprint (carbonfootprint.com), which allows users to choose what type of activity they would like their cash to go towards. Options include tree planting and donations to companies that are creating sustainable-energy sources. 
 
Environmentalists argue, however, that carbon offsetting could prove destructive over the longer term if people see it as a way of avoiding the fact that we are all producing too much CO2.

Mark Spelman, an analyst at consultancy Accenture, said: “Carbon- offsetting programmes make people more aware of their impact on the environment. But they have a very limited ability to change climate trends.”

Alex Lambie of Climate Change Now, a green-energy switching site, agrees. He said: “Carbon offsetting is quite dangerous as a concept because using schemes of this kind to offset high carbon-emission activities is a bit like handing out free bandages with bullets. Clearly, not handing out the bullets in the first place would be much better.”

Even EDF chief executive Vincent de Rivaz admits carbon-offsetting schemes do not provide an answer.

“This is not an alternative to saving power, but it can help in the fight against climate change,” he said.

There is also evidence that some of the schemes do not do exactly what they claim they will, which has raised concerns over the lack of regulation in the carbon-offsetting sector.

If, for example, you own a mid-size family saloon and drive approximately 10,000 miles a year, which would produce about four tonnes of CO2, it will cost you about £20 to offset your car’s CO2 emissions for a year, according to the BP Target Neutral website.

However, the oil company has based its calculations on a carbon market price of just under £5 per tonne, when it generally costs much more than that.

Spelman said: “The way some of the schemes are marketed needs to be looked at. I would also advocate a conduct code to dissuade unsavoury individuals from jumping on the bandwagon.”

HOW THE SCHEMES WORK

When you buy a carbon offset, your money is used to fund projects that reduce emissions on your behalf.

To do this, visit a carbon-offsetting website and use its calculator to work out how much CO2 you produce — then pay by credit or debit card.

 If you took a return flight to Sydney, Australia, Climate Care’s website calculates this would produce 5.61 tonnes of CO2. It claims this can be offset with a donation of £42.11 to one of its environmental projects.

The site also offers you the chance to work out how much CO2 you are producing by driving and heating and lighting your home, and to offset those emissions as well.
 
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2097-2426197.html

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