My Climate Care carbon offsets choice

August 26, 2007 at 3:49 pm | Posted in British Airways, Business travel, Carbon offsets, Climate Care, Climate change, Ease, Good Energy, Lifestyle, Simplicity, Travel, United Airlines, Vacations, Virgin Atlantic | Leave a comment

Months ago, when I booked return flights for myself and the three kids to fly transatlantic this summer, and onward to Hawai’i, I investigated carbon offsets. One of the companies I looked at was Climate Care. The clarity of their message impressed me, their clear animation was still memorable months later, and they appear to have a well-balanced project portfolio. At the time of booking our tickets, however, there were so many alternative carbon reduction schemes, and general ‘bad press’ on carbon trading schemes gone awry (like this story in today’s San Jose Mercury News), that I held off on making a decision and hence, payment. I felt uncomfortable giving money away to any scheme without knowing the money trail: who held responsibility for allocating resources, and the general question of accountability, loomed large, not knowing what the alternatives were. The organisation of Climate Care, the Responsibilities it has committed to its Environmental Steering Committee, and specific Terms of Reference and Powers of that committee were duly noted by me, as well as the fact that it was created in 1998 with headquarters in Oxford. Then I carried on with my investigations into planting trees as a separate project, and only revisited carbon offsetting again after landing back in the UK yesterday 😉

Carbon offsets are only one immediate strand in the web we weave to combat climate change. They are not a stand-alone solution: like the weft or woof that crosses the warp in a woven carpet, the purchase of carbon offsets helps complete part of the finished rug, but cannot be useful as a solo option. The warp is the longterm lifestyle change we need to reduce carbon emissions for the long haul. The weft provides a quick fix to neutralise current unavoidable emissions. So now I am picturing my climate challenge as a piece of woven fabric, with patterns that will develop and evolve as I learn more about climate change, and do more to help combat it.

Climate Care is so easy and cheap that it will definitely become part of the fabric of my life from now on, as is Good Energy (electricity from 100% renewables that I signed up for this summer after reading a bit about the alternatives). Quite frankly, I wish I had had the confidence and knowledge to sign up with Climate Care and Good Energy years ago!

This summer our family flew transatlantic with British Airways and across the Pacific to O’ahu with United Airlines. Earlier this year, I took a transatlantic round trip on Virgin Atlantic too, and now I know how easy it is, I shall backtrack and offset my emissions in a retrospective patch for the atmospheric damage caused by that trip too. So, I was interested to compare these three carriers to see how high up on their business radar the whole issue of climate change features. A quick glance at these companies’ homepages gives an indication of their public awareness and commitment to addressing the environmental damage caused by aircraft and airline businesses generally. One thing is clear: UK homepages for British Airways and Virgin Atlantic have carbon offsets right up there as top agenda items; by contrast, US sites (which includes United, because they offer their American view as the only entry point to their online presence) do not. Since homepages reflect business priorities at a particular moment in time, I have taken screen captures of these three airlines’ current homepages, US and UK versions, and will write another post on that topic. It will be interesting to see how these public topics change appearance as they are marketed and gain wider acceptance over time …

The implications of the Camp for Climate Action at Heathrow are not lost on me, nor is the antitrust case involving price-fixing on transatlantic flights by Virgin Atlantic and British Airways, announced last week in the US. (As an aside, just before news of the case against the airlines broke, I read in Palo Alto Daily News that a class-action antitrust lawsuit was filed in San Francisco against several oil companies, including Shell and Texaco, for price-fixing. I hope this story is given the attention it deserves, and US oil companies are held to account, if proven guilty, in the same way British airlines are!)

British Airways has the most prominent carbon offsets program—with Climate Care, in fact—so I purchased offsets through that avenue. Virgin Atlantic has not announced a partnership with a particular carbon offset supplier, but has a “watch this space” note on the dedicated environment section of their website.

Here are screens I captured to show how simple and cheap (compared with the price of flights and taxes and other surcharges) this whole process is, and it can accommocate different airlines, a combination of business and leisure travel, and are not date-sensitive:

Carbon emissions calculations and offsets quotes for LHR SFO 4 return flights

Carbon emissions calculations and offsets quotes for SFO HNL 4 return flights

In addition to a jolly good browse around the Climate Care website, I read the Annual Report for 2006, and have to say that the following extract provides a better summary of my concerns relating to many aspects including: greenwashing; the British political context (which is very different from the American scene, I am all too aware); the learning curve and repeatable experience; and reasons for choosing a balanced portfolio instead of putting all our climate eggs in one basket.

The Role for Carbon Offsets in 2006

Following the Stern Review’s warning and resultant widespread public concern for the climate, people are looking for legitimate and workable solutions. Climate change has shot up the political agenda intensifying debate over the best course of action. The role of carbon offsets has been put under the microscope and deflected scepticism from various corners, emerging as a real strategy for positive action.

As the three main political parties vied for the best ‘green’ positioning in the public eye, a common question arose over sincerity; is it all just ‘green-wash’? Green-washing became a common barb and carbon offsets often fell unfairly under this banner. We believe more than ever that it is critical for the public to understand the important role offsetting plays as an immediate and real act against climate change.

Personal Carbon Responsibility

Offsetting lets people acknowledge, quantify and take responsibility for their personal contribution to climate change. This is a small step in encouraging the world to act collectively to make a real difference. Once understood, it is a very easy step to repeat.

The danger is that offsets are seen as ‘the solution’ rather than simply as ‘part of the solution’ – that they are a salve to the conscience that stands in the way of the ‘real progress’ that we need to achieve.

The facts tell a different story. Our recent customer survey has shown the reality of engaging the public through carbon offsets; contrary to being an indulgence of the conscience, offsetting has steadily acquired a morally-inclined following of those wishing to recompense unavoidable emissions.

There is however a more powerful reason for engaging in offsets. Making changes in our lifestyles and the way societies and economies operate will take a long time, and the reductions will come only slowly. On the other hand offsets let us make 100% emissions reductions cost effectively and quickly. If we have limited money, and even less time to act, then we cannot responsibly ignore the huge impact they could have on providing a short term solution – in effect giving us the time to make the other changes we need.

Climate Care’s focus on sustainable energy projects serves to enhance the offset package. There is a widespread media perception that offsets are simply about ‘tree planting’ which is seen at best as a slow and unsteady mechanism for reducing atmospheric CO2. Climate Care’s response to this is that 80%-90% of our activity is in sustainable energy projects which deliver real benefits quickly. Nonetheless deforestation is a source of some 20% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions, and no attempt to cut humanity’s emissions by 80% can be complete without addressing the forestry issue. To balance the 10-20% of our carbon-based forestry offsets therefore, many of our other projects reduce emissions from activities such as charcoal making which emit greenhouse gases (such as methane) with high short term impacts. On balance therefore, the portfolio delivers savings cost effectively and in a timescale appropriate to the urgency of the problem.

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