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TV Review: Great Green Smokescreen

Whatever one’s view of climate change and how far it is caused by human intervention, one thing is clear. The issue has become a lucrative earner for corporations who claim green credentials to lure us their way, as well as for the growing number of carbon offset companies.

Dispatches on Channel 4 on July 16 examined the trend for offsetting one’s “carbon footprint”, and questioned how accurate the science for measuring this really is. 

BP has claimed on its website that by buying into a scheme for trapping the emissions on a huge Mexican pig farm and burning off the harmful methane, the company is helping reduce global carbon emissions equivalent to 750,000 cars a year.  A huge claim and a major boost to the oil company’s green image.  However, they have “recently become aware” that this figure is inaccurate.  The real figure, it turns out, is equivalent to 2500 cars.  Such a vastly inflated claim for offsetting carbon emissions – i.e. paying for reductions elsewhere to make up for gas emitted here – is not unique.  Most businesses “want a piece of the green action” as reporter Tom Clarke, who is Science Correspondent for C4 News, put it.

Marks and Spencer claim they’ll be “carbon neutral” by 2012.  HSBC claim they already are, and spent £2.5 million last year investing in green credentials which could massively increase their business.

Energy companies are especially keen to promote themselves as green.  British Gas advertises itself as having the “lowest carbon emissions of any major supplier.”  Many energy companies push special green tariffs, which they say go towards investing in renewable energy sources. The companies invite customers to do their bit for the environment by signing up.  But sceptic, Andy Kerr, a specialist in the financial aspects of climate change policy, says that many of these tariffs are, at best, a waste of time.  Customers are already required to pay £7 a year towards renewable energy projects through their energy bills, so Powergen’s Go Green tariff, a prime example, offers no new contribution to renewable sources.

Dieter Helm, Professor of Energy Policy at Oxford University, calls the greening of many corporations “good PR”, but says it lacks scientific substance.  This question of flawed science lies at the heart of Tom Clarke’s programme.  How reliable are the measurements?  Take air travel.  A 32,000 km round trip to Adelaide would produce 3.68 tonnes of carbon dioxide, according to the British Airways website.  Climate Care, the company which sells offsets to British Airways, estimates a £27 cost to the customer, if they opt to offset the emissions of their flight.  However, Climate Care’s own website measures the emissions from the same round trip at 5.31 tonnes, costing £39 to offset.  The discrepancy is due to British Airways’ exclusion of the “multiplier” – which is used to account for the apparently increased damage caused by nitrous oxide emissions from planes at high altitude.  British Airways says it is following the government’s own emissions guidelines, which do not factor in the multiplier, and that there is no “scientific consensus” on the measurement of jet emissions in the stratosphere. 

The bottom line is that offsetting companies like Climate Care must “find a price people are prepared to pay”.  It would, they say, be unwise to “ramp up” the advertised emissions, as fewer passengers would choose to pay the extra to offset, and that “doesn’t help the planet”.  Nor would it help Climate Care’s business. 

The programme looked in some detail at a number of different offsetting schemes.   The Climate Neutral Company, an offsetting firm, invests in a Bulgarian renewable energy project called VEC Energy, and then sells the offsets to Sky, which in turn advertises itself as the most environmentally friendly company in the world.  But reporter Tom Clarke found out that VEC Energy had already received funding from a Sofia bank to set up the project in the first place, and that the Climate Neutral Company’s money, while “good to have”, was not key to the project.  In other words, it was not contributing to any new reductions in emissions.  Can Sky then be said to be offsetting its carbon footprint? 

Other projects, such as paying to plant trees, claim to be actively offsetting carbon emissions.  Treeflights’ Ru Hartwell estimates that one flight requires the planting of one tree to “clear up the mess you’ve made” – costing between £10 and £20.  Big companies such as Dell, Honda, Avis all claim to use trees to cancel out their customers’ carbon footprint.  But Duncan McLaren of Friends of the Earth says the money paid for offsets seldom leads to new trees actually being planted.

The Donkeyland forest of 120,000 trees was planted using a £320,000 grant from the Forestry Commission.  Though it was already funded and planted, the Carbon Neutral Company paid £55,000 for the rights to offset 20,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide against these same trees – as though they were investing in new trees.  The Carbon Neutral Company admit that 70% of the establishment of the Donkeyland forest was already funded by the government, but claim that 30% was still required.  Friends of the Earth, however, believe that in many tree-planting offset schemes no new carbon absorption capacity is being added.

The government’s recent consultative document proposes a standard kitemark-style scheme for measuring offsets, and says this should be approved by the UN.  It also suggests that the term “carbon neutral” is not a useful one.  The offsetting companies worry that if adopted, these proposals could discourage offsetting altogether – and by implication hurt their own revenues. 

Meanwhile, Professor Gareth Edwards-Jones of Bangor University says there simply are no clear measurements for emissions at present.  The carbon footprint from farming, for instance, can be measured reasonably well in terms of transportation and energy use, but the more complex issue of emissions from a farm itself, its eco-system, is not yet understood. 

However, the Carbon Trust, funded by the government to the tune of £80 million, is not deterred by lack of science.  They have used “the latest expert research” on their pilot project – new labels on Walker crisps and Pepsi drinks indicating the carbon footprint of these products – and aim to roll out the labelling system to all products eventually. 

Though ostensibly a consumer-oriented programme asking what the individual can do for the environment, the real value of the July 16 Dispatches was its expose of the way that big business is using our concern for the environment as a green gravy train to higher profits.