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Carbon trading or social change?

July brought two publications coincidentally including articles on the same subject. Couched in terms so, so soothing to the save-the-planet-sympathisers, Roughnews advises us that “we all need to limit our personal impact on global warming” and whilst supporting responsible tourism we should give thought to “how we can redress the environmental damage caused by travel – in particular flights, the fastest growing contributor to global warming”. Great! Excellent idea! This has to be good news. We can continue to fly, as often, as far as we choose and can also redress the environmental damage. And the solution? Offset your use of carbon taken from the ground by enabling a tree to be planted somewhere in the world – and on a short haul flight this “costs no more than the price of a drink”.

Rough Guides is also publishing a book in October, called Climate Change which, miracle of miracles, is actually a ‘climate neutral’ book meaning that “the amount of CO2 emitted in the book’s production and distribution, including everything from paper manufacture to the computers used by the author and editor and the estimated carbon footprint of the book’s physical distribution has been calculated” by the carbon offset company Climate Care. To what end? So that Rough Guides (through increased retail price of the book, presumably) will pay Climate Care to ‘offset’ the carbon emissions by planting some trees somewhere, or by installing energy-saving light bulbs somewhere else, or a similar scheme supposed to mop up the carbon released. Apparently Rough Guides offsets all its authors’ travel by paying Climate Care to take care of it. No mention of how Climate Care benefits from the arrangement. It seems one can ‘offset’ all manner of nasties now, from flying, car rental, to producing CDs, all the while feeling good about ‘putting something back’ and being lulled into believing you have repaired the damage done. (The World Bank estimated the global carbon market to be worth $11 billion at the end of 2005, 10 times the previous year’s value.)

However, the second July publication, New Internationalist, has a different story to tell. It reminds us that by unlocking the carbon in fossil fuels by mining it, burning it and releasing it as active carbon it disrupts the balance of carbon in air, soil and seas. What is needed to address the problem of too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is to reduce the amount of carbon released. Oliver Rackham, a Cambridge University botanist and landscape historian is quoted thus, “Telling people to plant trees (to solve climate change) is like telling them to drink more water to keep down rising sea levels.” Adam Ma’anit, the author of the article, gets to grips with reality and shows offsetting for what it is – companies being formed to take advantage of the gullible consumer, established companies jumping on the bandwagon to increase their share of the market and the misinformed punter alleviating their guilt whilst doing nothing to actually cut carbon emissions. Adam Ma’anit: “Climate change is an issue we shouldn’t be ‘neutral’ on. Carbon offsets are at best a distraction and at worst a grandiose carbon laundering scheme.” And, “The solution to climate change is social change.” Any seconders?