A couple of weeks ago I went to a gathering organised by Cambridge Energy. The subject of debate was Carbon Offsetting: fix or fig-leaf? And very interesting it all proved to be.
I am of the camp that thinks it's pretty much fig-leaf. The first person I bumped into there was Andy Brown, an old acquaintance of mine who now works at Cambridge Architectural Research. Andy is even more of a fig-leafer than I am. He runs something called Cambridge Carbon Footprint in his spare time; I am not completely clear what it does but one thing it doesn’t do is sell carbon offsets.
The speakers at the event were a mixed bunch. Fiona Harvey of the Financial Times gave a run down of some of the carbon offset scams she had uncovered recently. These included a company selling offsets which consisted of sequestering CO2 by pumping it down into oil wells, when the real purpose of this operation was to increase the gas pressure in the wells and thereby help to extract the last of the oil down there.
Then Michael Schlup told us about the Gold Standard, a sort of UN backed quality assurance scheme for carbon offsets. I wasn’t convinced but he made the interesting point that you can’t realistically offset within Europe because the total amount of CO2 released is already capped (at least in theory, by Kyoto): it therefore only works in territories where there is no capping. Hence so many carbon offsetting schemes being Third World projects.
Now many people are cynical about rock stars offsetting their world tours by planting mango forests in India, but are happy to accept the principle of offsetting home produced renewable energy in order to obtain zero carbon status for a housing project. But logically, it’s all offsetting. As is buying electricity from a green supplier. Unless you aim to live entirely off grid and entirely without recourse to fossil fuels, which most people think is virtually impossible in the Western world today, then you can only approach being carbon neutral by trading your excess renewable power or biomass sequestration project, or by getting someone else to do this for you.
So despite all the scams and the indulgences it attracts, the principle of offsetting is sound. But it still sticks in the craw: the idea that I can burn more carbon if you do something to absorb that carbon. There is, whether you like it or not, something rather unpleasant going on here. It has been expertly satirised by Andy Brown’s son, Alex Randall, who runs the Cheat Neutral website.
This debate is particularly relevant to the Code for Sustainable Homes because it seems happy to accept some forms of offsetting but not others. This is difficult territory.
• The CSH accepts that it’s not possible to have a house generate all its electricity all the time, so it is permissible to trade any surplus you generate on sunny or windy days with the National Grid. Like it or not, that’s an offset.
• But the CSH also recognises that is impractical for every Code Level 6 house to be expected to generate renewable power, so the offset is extended to include community power schemes, such as CHP and district heating. So we have moved a level further out: they now accept offsite offsetting.
• How far off site can this renewable power plant be situated? It seems churlish to impose a maximum distance, so they have to accept that it could be many miles away. But how far? How about out in the North Sea?
By now, you can see that we are straying into very difficult territory. The CSH zero carbon definition is adamant that it won’t allow schemes simply to sign up for a renewable electricity tariff, because anyone can do that anytime. Somehow they want to be able to ensure that the renewable power generated for the scheme is unique and is additional to any other source, but this is much easier said than done. How do you enforce an individual home owner, let alone an entire housing scheme, to finance, say, an off shore windfarm? Especially in a country where we are all free to switch power suppliers at the click of a mouse. The government’s definition of zero carbon hinges on this conundrum and I don’t think anyone is going to be able to come up with a compelling definition, because the rules they dream up will look arbitrary and nonsensical.
The problem is of course that once you accept one bit of the offsetting model as being legitimate, then logically it’s all legitimate. After all carbon molecules don’t much care what happens to them and as far as CO2 reduction is concerned, a carbon molecule sequestered in an Indian mango forest is just as good as one saved from being burned in a power station because you have PV on your roof.
I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the government here. After all, it was they who dreamed up this silly target of the zero carbon home, something that is impossible to exist without embracing the concept of carbon offsetting. They now want to pick and choose which offsetting bits they like and which they don’t. I will rather enjoy watching them wriggle on their own hook.
Damned difficult, this carbon offsetting.