28. 04. 2014

Offsetting Breakthroughs

Offsetting remains so controversial – but I spent quite some time last week wondering why.

And that’s because it was a great week for ‘offsetting done well’. First up was the announcement from ClimateCare that it’s just won a sustainable development award under the Queen’s Award for Enterprise – pretty much the highest accolade for business success that we have in the UK.

This is so well deserved. ClimateCare has been in there from the start of the voluntary market for carbon offsets, and through thick and thin has constantly pioneered new ways of making offsets work for its clients as part of their integrated carbon management plans.

What that amounts to, in practice, is reductions of over 16.5 million tonnes of CO2, and improved lives for more than six million people.

Forum for the Future has worked with ClimateCare for yonks, and all our offsets are sorted out with them. As was the offset for my book, The World We Made, which allows me to point out to sceptics that it’s perfectly possible for every author (especially those in the business of pontificating about the environment!) to make their own books carbon neutral. It remains more than a little troubling that there are still so few authors who can be arsed to commit to this relatively simple measure.

The offset from The World We Made went to support ClimateCare’s LifeStraw Carbon for Water Project in Kenya. But I very nearly opted for its Gyapa Stores Project in Ghana, which has been going for more than seven years, and has already cut more than one million tonnes of CO2 emissions.

Cook stoves are at the heart of many of today’s biggest offsetting successes. The second thing that happened last week was a great session at M&S on Wednesday, looking at its latest offset partnership with UNICEF UK to provide 40,000 lower-income households in Bangladesh with a fuel-efficient cook stove for a period of ten years. These stoves use around half the amount of woodfuel that a traditional stove uses, and also comes with a chimney. This reduces the amount of smoke and particulates entering the home, as well as producing one tonne less of CO2 per year than a traditional stove. 

The offset is provided by CarbonNeutral, accredited as Gold Standard. And what everybody loved about this scheme on Wednesday was the fact that a large number of new jobs will be created as community entrepreneurs are trained to make the stoves from locally-available materials. They can then be sold at a subsidised and affordable rate, in four mainly rural regions across Bangladesh.

My Forum for the Future colleagues worked with M&S on the pros and cons of this commitment, and we all believe it really is one of the most exciting innovations in the voluntary offset market today. All credit to M&S, which has had to make the case, year after year, that being a carbon-neutral retailer really does make sense.
But all credit too to UNICEF UK. David Bull (its CEO here in the UK) spoke eloquently of just how hard UNICEF UK has had to work to make this unique approach to addressing children’s needs in countries like Bangladesh acceptable to the rest of the UNICEF family.

And one of the main reasons for that is the fact that offsetting is still seen by some as ‘dodgy’, ‘a scam’, ‘an excuse for not doing the real stuff on energy efficiency and decarbonisation through renewables’. It’s mostly vocal, influential NGOs that are now responsible for perpetuating those stereotypes, despite the fact, as I’ve pointed out time after time, that there’s a world of difference between ‘offsets done well’ (as with ClimateCare and CarbonNeutral) and the kind of ‘get out of jail free’ stuff done by companies who are not pursuing full-on decarbonisation. We all know that. My irritation with the NGOs is that they won’t ever acknowledge that distinction, allowing their detached high-and-mighty opprobrium to taint the entire market. 

The stand-out exception here is WWF, which has always emphasised that distinction, and has done a huge amount to establish its idea of a ‘Gold Standard’ as one of the best tests of offsets done well.

So, if I may, here’s a direct challenge to the rest of them. Check out the UNICEF briefing on this scheme, detailing the climate benefits, the health benefits, the economic benefits, the social benefits, as well as the financial savings. And tell me what you don’t like about this project.

And then tell me why you wouldn’t sign up to a global campaign to get hundreds of companies to do what M&S has done, for whatever reason works best for them, to save millions of lives, whilst cutting millions of tonnes of CO2 emissions.

I’ll let you know if I get any serious answers to this challenge. I rather doubt it.

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30. 04. 2014
Hannah Griffin

Really great to hear what M&S are doing in terms of carbon offsetting. I have become aware recently however, of just how many of their food products contain palm oil. It would be great if they could do something about this. Destruction of the rain-forest through palm oil production must need an enormous amount of offsetting! I am so grateful for all the work you do, and want to read 'The World We Made' as I am in danger of despairing!
Kind regards,
Hannah.

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