30 Oct 2007

On Carbon Offsetting

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.


  1. This is a very interesting topic, but when I clicked onto the cheat neutral link, I thought I was entering an "April Fools" site!

    To think, a site set up to make someone feel better about being unfaithful to their partner (sometimes on numerous occasions) by offsetting to innocent parties I find very difficult to understand.

    Don't these people have any morales whatsoever?

    I understand this site is a joke, but at the same time found it hard to digest, espeically the project examples.

  2. The start of the problem is the focus on Carbon being the demon element, and magical measure of all things indulgent and over-consumptive.

    We can't reduce the energy efficiency of even a small component of an individual house to a simple number (see the many discussions about u-values or, dare I say it, multifoil). Why then are we trying to equate all of our energy and resource problems to a measurable quantity of a specific gas? It really doesn't mean anything.

    Once you accept that, the whole edifice comes tumbling down. Yes, we should be doing everything we can to reduce our impact on our immediate and global environment. Trying to simplify the whole problem by converting it to a single number only serves to hide the nature of the issues we're dealing with. Of course, that serves many of the interested parties very well.

    Think of that the next time someone tries to convert some element of your behaviour into tonnes of CO2.

  3. I'd be hesitant to deem that by exporting a small amount of energy (in the region of a few thousand kWhs per year) you are in the same offsetting camp as those spending money on planting trees in developing countries.

    I think we need a new vocabulary to describe the intricacies of these types of offsetting.

  4. Actually you cant even consider windfarms unless they directly connect to your housing scheme. The national grid is not allowed to be a pathway.

    Take a grand off everybody in the UK in taxes over the next ten years and you would have more then enough cash to pay for as many renewable energy installations as you can get. Beauty being that the turbines in windfarms should pay for themselves several times over their lifetime removing the need for further investment, fixing prices and providing further profits to pay the companies that run the system and upgrade the grid to a decent standard.

    Co-operative wind farms on a grand scale could solve a large portion of the zero carbon problem at a bargain cost. However the code says you cant so whats the point in considering it...

  5. While I believe in carbon offsetting and carbon quotas, I wish we spent more money looking into safe storage methods for carbon. I have been looking into the deep storage methods for carbon and I believe these could be a really risk for increase erosion and pollutants of aquifers that may potentially be use-able in the future.