NEWS ANALYSIS: Is CO2 offsetting a smokescreen?

Firms are lining up to gain 'green' credibility by joining carbon-offsetting schemes. But the practice has come under attack from some quarters, reports Alex Black.

When The CarbonNeutral Company attacked the PR community for ‘failing to grasp the climate-change nettle' (PRWeek, 10 Nov 2006), a howl of industry outrage swiftly followed.

Accusing people in any industry of failing to tackle green issues is a serious slur. But firms that do want to ‘go green' have a number of options - and the schemes offered by The CarbonNeutral Company et al are not seen by everyone as the ideal route.

For a fee, The CarbonNeutral Company calculates an organisation's ‘carbon footprint', converts it into a cash sum, and then invests the money in env­ironmental projects. Climate Care operates a similar scheme, investing in renewable energy, energy efficiency and reforestation.

Elsewhere, The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce has embarked on a three-year experiment called Carbon Limited. It is testing the viability of a scheme to calculate a sustainable level of carbon output for the UK population as a whole, which it would use to allocate each citizen with an equal ‘share' for offsetting. ‘Carbon credits' would be issued at no cost to individuals and surrendered electronically when paying energy bills. People would be able to sell any surplus to individuals or businesses using more than their allotted share.

Setting the standard
Other schemes include Pure, Global Cool, Equiclimate and Carbon Offsets - the only such projects hailed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as meeting its proposed ‘gold standard' (see below).

The department is worried about a lack of transparency and inconsistent prices among the myriad of schemes, and hopes that an official standard would bring clarity.

But why are the more established offsetting projects missing from this theoretical top bracket? Carbon­Neutral Company co-founder Sue Welland says it is about the way in which emissions are calculated: ‘We support Defra's review of the sector, but we disagree that there is no place for using Verified Emission Reductions as a measurement mechanism.'

Defra's move has been prompted, in part, by the increasingly vocal opposition of some NGOs to offsetting. ‘Greenwashing' has become the new battle cry - spending a few quid on offsetting is all very well, say campaign groups, but if a company's primary business involves investing in organisations that produce thousands of tons of carbon dioxide, the net result is still bad for the planet.

Or, as Friends of the Earth director Tony Juniper put it last month: ‘Carbon offsetting schemes are being used as a smokescreen to avoid real measures to tackle climate change.'

Just last week, environmental lobby group Fern produced a report into the negative effects of carbon offsetting schemes. ‘Carbon offsetting is grossly misleading,' says Fern climate campaigner Jutta Kill. ‘The feel-good "offset" business undermines the push towards a rapid switch to low-carbon economies.'

She adds: ‘It nurtures the illusion that carbon emissions for a holiday trip have no impact on the climate as long as we buy our indulgences but pay someone else, somewhere else, to deal with our excessive emissions.'

The planting of trees is perhaps the most visible way for a company to prove it is ‘putting something back'. But what if that tree was going to be planted anyway?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Climate Care managing director David Wellington disagrees that any of the companies signed up to his group are engaged in ‘greenwashing'.

‘Everyone we work with is aware that offsetting is part of a wider programme,' he says.

But more surprisingly, from a comms perspective, Wellington says offsetting may have gained too much media coverage. He explains that while the vast majority of Climate Care customers realise that offsetting alone will not solve the climate crisis, most of the general public are less informed.

‘The critical NGOs are concerned that the more mainstream this becomes, the less people will think about the wider issue of climate change,' he notes. ‘In that scenario, it becomes more imp­ortant to explain why the reduction of emissions is so important.'

‘This is a business issue'
In order to avoid the perception that they are meerly jumping on the bandwagon, companies should be cautious about how they promote their green credentials.

‘This should not be led by the PR dep­artment; this is a business issue,' says Rainier PR managing director Stephen Waddington. ‘If emission reductions and carbon offsetting are intrinsic to one's business, they should not need to be spun.'

As Agincourt Communications co-founder Christopher Broadbent says: ‘Carbon offsetting involves spending money. A holistic approach to climate change involves actually saving money.'

So, which companies are setting the best example? Weber Shandwick international head of CSR and sustainability Brendan May praises Marks & Spencer's approach. The retailer has pledged to spend £200m on an ‘eco plan' that will make it carbon-neutral by 2012.

‘Companies should reduce as much of their emissions as possible. Only then can they offset the carbon they really can't avoid creating,' May says.

So far, the public have yet to turn on a company for trying to mislead them over its green credentials, so it could be argued that the comms of those firms involved has been successful. But as public understanding of offsetting's role in emission reduction becomes more sophisticated, tougher questions are bound to be asked.

Those firms that have not thought beyond planting a few trees could soon feel the heat.

Offsetters that meet Defra’s proposed ‘gold standard’

1. Pure Donations used to buy and cancel carbon credits from emission reduction projects, thereby forcing up the price of credits and reducing their overall number.

2. Global Cool Wants one billion people to reduce their carbon emissions by one tonne. Uses Cake for PR advice (PRWeek, 26 January).

3. Equiclimate Estimates a firm’s carbon foot­print and then buys credits on its behalf from the European Union Emissions Trading scheme. Founded in 1998.

4. Carbon Offsets Works with busi­ne­sses and individuals to reinvest money in everything from green energy and recyc­ling to education.

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