Sunday, 21 September 2008

September 2008 - carbon offsetting and 'being reasonable'

In the September copy of the Co-operative's Re:act magazine, there was a debate between Tom Picken, Friends of the Earth International Climate Campaigner, and Paul Monaghan, Head of Social Goals & Sustainability for the Co-operative group, on carbon offsetting. Making all the key arguments against offsetting was Tom Picken, who accurately observed that a) we only have a few years to reduce global carbon emissions, and b) an offset is an offest - not a reduction.

It is not, perhaps, surprising to find the Co-op, despite the admirable ethical credentials, supporting carbon offsetting. After all, one part of their business is a travel company, and they make income from selling flights. Paul Monaghan's stance, however, was disappointing - not so much because of his support for the carbon offset concept, but because of the disparaging and misleading way he characterised those in the environmental movement who believe that carbon offsetting is simply not an appropriate response to the urgency of tackling climate change.

Monaghan claimed that disliking carbon offsetting was a badge of honour that some environmentalists wore to indicate their 'greener' credentials. He even claimed that taking such a stance was 'dangerous'. In painting those who do not share his views about carbon offsetting as a lunatic fringe with a point to prove, however, Monaghan is doing something far more dangerous: placing boundaries on the 'acceptable' limits of the debate.

Most environmentalists oppose carbon offsetting not because they wish to appear 'greener than thou', but because it fails in contributing to the most basic aim of the fight against climate change - reducing carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere. Global carbon dioxide emissions must be reduced rapidly to avoid dangerous climate change - that much is now uncontroversial. Aviation is the fastest growing source of carbon dioxide emissions, yet carbon offsetting does noting to reduce this - if anything, it encourages it. That comforting feeling you get when you carbon offset is the the wool being pulled over your eyes - it is not enough to simply carry on as we are, and making the tough changes to our behaviour is only made harder by pseudo-solutions like carbon offsetting.

So, while there are serious objections to carbon offsetting that arise from a uncompromising assessment of the harsh reality of climate change, 'reasonable' people like Monaghan make a shameless plunge for the 'reasonable' middle ground and designate all dissenting views as 'dangerous' and 'anti-development'. In a high profile position, working for an organisation supposedly at the forefront of environmentally responsible business practice, Monaghan should know better.There is perhaps nothing quite so dangerous as an attempt to curtail genuine debate - especially when the stakes are so high.

For a far more creative critique of carbon offsetting, see


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