Tuesday, 31 August 2010

To offset or not to offset: part 2






For those of you who enjoyed the bank holiday Monday, happy short week!
As planned, I made a light, velvety, delicious chocolate mousse, which was entirely overshadowed by the most spectacular dessert my friend Kevin served for his birthday. I will now work on surpassing his chocolate brownie gooey cake/cookie thing - evidence of which I fail to supply, as I was too busy scoffing it down.

To pick up where I left off Friday: should I pay the carbon offset premium on my air travel?
Let’s say I am feeling guilty about my recent holiday in New York. The carbon offset page on the British Airways website informs me the 1 ton of CO2 I burnt, squeezed as I was in an under-ventilated box, will cost me £10.00 in contributions to UK government-certified carbon offset programmes. The money will go towards wind farms and hydro-electric power plants. I’m not sure how wise it is to limit carbon damage by threatening wildlife habitats with the construction of hydro-electric plants, but this may be the subject of a future post.
The same trip would cost me £14.24 in carbon offsetting with Virgin Atlantic, while United Airlines will settle the matter for anything between £12.00 and £20.00, allowing passengers to choose between international reforestation, renewable energy or the Gold Standard, widely considered the most efficient methodology, focusing mainly on renewable energy projects.
As with anything else around global warming, its causes and solutions, there are as many opinions as you care to listen to out there. I can’t tell you why there is an almost 50% difference between the offset cost from BA and Virgin Atlantic for the exact same route.
My reluctance in coughing up an extra 10 or 20 quid comes from not knowing what my contribution represents. Do airlines commit to match every penny I pay, sharing the responsibility in spreading all that CO2 around? Are these programmes going ahead regardless of passengers' voluntary contributions? Or are airlines saying, if our customers don’t care about the environment, neither do we? In which case, can I have my 20 pounds back, please? Seeing how discreetly tucked away the carbon offset pages are on the websites I looked, I have a feeling airlines are being deliberately vague about their investments in this area.
There’s another question : my flight to New York and back would cost me between £436 and £560. Various taxes and airport charges amount for £215 of that price. I’m not convinced that my carbon offset share shouldn’t already come from the almost 50% tax portion of my ticket. It may be the case that the airline industry has gone to hell and back over the last decade. It is also true that we all breathed a sigh of relief when airport operators BAA cancelled their strike over staff pay at the last minute recently. But I’m still paying exorbitant prices for a cup of coffee at any international airport, and commercial rent prices at Heathrow are notoriously astronomical, with retailers queuing up to score a shop space in terminal 5. This can only mean that airports must be good business. Shouldn’t any carbon offset programme be heavily subsidised by these businesses, which stand to lose a lot should air travel cease to exist?
And then there is the reliability of the offset projects chosen by individual airlines. According to Marcelo Theoto Rocha, academic and researcher into climate change, carbon offset initiatives financed solely by the customer should be avoided:
"Most of the costs for neutralising carbon emissions should be met by the airlines. Companies should also offer details of reliable projects they’re involved with.
Personally, I don’t contribute, as I’m yet to find an adequate project associated with any of the airlines I normally fly with."

What about other industries? If we’re going to demomise airlines for their naughty polluting ways, why not add a carbon offset option at the Amazon checkout (paper = fallen trees), supermarkets (fruit, veg and meat = deforestation, pesticide, transport), car dealerships, petrol stations, utilities bills?

It sounds to me that, if you decide to mitigate your own greenhouse gas emissions, the best solution is to pick a product that you trust* to be serious and pay what you think it’s fair regularly into it. In that calculation, I’d include how much of my taxes already goes into state-funded initiatives to combat global warming. It will give you a chance to do some research into how wisely your government has been spending your money.
That’s what I’m choosing to do. What about those £10 that British Airways suggests I pay as green tax? I’m saving them for that far away day when I finally get to turn left as I board, to a world of free flowing champagne and  reclining chairs sprinkled with golden dust.

*Read more on available carbon offset standards and vendors:

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