The Duke and Duchess of Sussex
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have been given a rough ride in some sections of the media. A short time after speaking out in favour of action to tackle climate change, they were criticised as hypocrites for taking four plane journeys in eleven days. This is a familiar criticism levelled at celebrities and politicians who do the same thing.
One defence of this criticism is that to make the most of their influential positions, such people need to be seen and heard in as many places as possible. It could also be argued that they are operating within a transport system which provides no reasonable alternatives for time-pressed travellers who wish to reach long-haul locations. In my opinion, these are only partially acceptable excuses: accusations that frequent-flying eco-celebrities are being hypocrites still, at first glance, have a degree of validity.
Damned if they do and damned if they don’t
But what if their flights have been carbon offset? Carbon offsetting involves paying an organisation to invest in climate protection projects throughout the world which reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, thus protecting the climate.
In the case of Harry and Meghan, Elton John was publicised as having contributed, on their behalf, to a carbon offset scheme run by Carbon Footprint. Despite criticism of Al Gore flying around the world to push for climate action (as shown in his film An Inconvenient Truth), he too has carbon offset his emissions. Leonardo di Caprio is another high-profile carbon offsetter, as is Greta Thunberg, who has ensured that the flights her crew took back to Europe following her ‘zero-carbon’ sailing trip to America have been carbon balanced.
I tend to support carbon offsetting. I recognise that this opinion may partly stem from my self-interest of wanting to take a flight every year or two, but I believe it has a role to play as a pragmatic, short-term response to climate change. Let us examine the key criticisms made of the approach.
Criticism 1. They are not taking CO₂ out of the air
Dr Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace [disclaimer: I am a member], was quoted in the Daily Mail as saying: “These are good schemes, and they have positive outcomes, but they are things we should be doing anyway. But they’re not taking out CO₂.” It’s true in many cases: some schemes are not taking out CO₂, they are merely preventing CO₂ entering the atmosphere. For instance, one project involves replacing fuel-inefficient stoves with more efficient ones in some of the poorest regions of the world, such as Darfur (Sudan) and rural Kenya. Nevertheless, I would argue that preventing CO₂ from entering the atmosphere is itself a laudable goal, and one which may not take place to such a great an extent if it wasn’t for carbon offsetting schemes.
Fig 1: A Carbon Footprint tree-planting scheme
However reafforestation schemes do take CO₂ out of the air, once the trees have been established. And I imagine that in the near future, schemes could involve investing in carbon capture and storage solutions too – such as the ones I write about here.
Criticism 2: The impacts of carbon offsetting will take a long time to have an impact
In the case of the Sussexes, the Daily Mail reported that it would take 320 years for a single tree to absorb all of the CO₂ emitted by the four flights they took in August 2019, as shown by Figure 2 below. On one level, this graphic is ridiculous, as they wouldn’t have paid for just one tree to be planted! But a more sensible argument is that even if many hundreds of trees were planted to absorb the CO₂, they would take a few years to grow to their full effectiveness.
Figure 2: Misleading Daily Mail graphic showing the ‘slow’ effects of carbon offsetting
As well as the slightly flippant, but nevertheless partially valid, response of ‘better late than never’, another riposte is that whilst it may well be a long time until the CO₂ you emit gets soaked up by the trees that are planted, most carbon offset schemes give more immediate results because, for example, their funds go towards renewable energy schemes or energy efficiency measures.
Additionally, some schemes allow institutions to have the trees planted on or near their grounds (see Figure 1), therefore helping members of such institutions – including schoolchildren – a chance to physically connect with the natural environment, to associate climate change with nature, and to encourage a sense of ‘biophilia‘ which may encourage them to develop other pro-environment behaviours.
Criticism 3: The rich will be able to buy their way out of environmental responsibility
George Monbiot has compared carbon offsetting to the medieval Catholic church’s sale of ‘indulgences’ whereby wealthy parishioners could have their sins absolved for a price – and thus be free to sin again:
“Just as in the 15th and 16th centuries you could sleep with your sister and kill and lie without fear of eternal damnation, today you can live exactly as you please as long as you give your ducats to one of the companies selling indulgences. It is pernicious and destructive nonsense.”
But, if carbon offsetting were carried out routinely, and even became a legal obligation – perhaps by means of some kind of ‘overdraft fee’ for a personal ‘carbon budget’ – then I propose that they should be treated as a valid and in fact commendable extension of the notion of ‘the polluter pays’ principle.
Monbiot also stated that “Even if, through carbon offset schemes carried out in developing countries, every poor nation on the planet became carbon-free, we would still have to cut most of the carbon we produce at home [to restrict global warming to 2 degrees warmer than pre-industrial levels].” This statement both ignores the possibility of carbon offsetting schemes being carried out in developed countries, and understates the abilities of developing countries to undertake a transition to a low carbon economy.
It is easy to underestimate the potential of carbon offsetting. Yes, merely offsetting the carbon emissions of our activities may be insufficient to avoid runaway climate change, but if we were to double or triple our offsetting payments, then we could really make a difference in this regard. Countries have indeed begun to consider introducing offsetting escalators: in the UK, the government’s climate advisers, the Committee on Climate Change, has recommended that a frequent flyer levy, under which each citizen would be allowed one tax-free flight a year, but would pay progressively higher taxes on each additional flight.
Criticism 4: The projects might have happened anyway
The ‘environmental Kuznets curve‘ theory (see Figure 3) states that countries develop, they go through three stages in relation to environmental degradation:
- Pre-industrial Economies: The environment becomes gradually more degraded as agriculture mechanises and energy-intensive industries grow
- Industrial Economies: The dominant economic sector is manufacturing, and energy sources tend to be high carbon
- Post-Industrial Economies: Pollution decreases as manufacturing activities either become more energy efficient or close down [pollution can be ‘exported’ abroad in some cases], environmental awareness rises, and increased levels of affluence enables countries to enact and support environmental laws
Figure 3: The environmental Kuznets curve
Source: Kjeffreytaylor [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D
On this basis, it could be claimed that typical carbon offsetting projects such as afforestation and promoting renewable energy will happen anyway, and so carbon offsetting is a pointless diversion of funds away from other ways of protecting the environment.
But even if carbon offsetting projects would eventually happen according to this theory, I can see no harm in accelerating their implementation, as they will set the standard for others to follow. And Monbiot’s criticism that some schemes may fail, and that many are unaccountable is now outdated, as there are now Quality Assurance Schemes and auditing of market leading companies such as Carbon Footprint.
Carbon offsetting – a short-term, pragmatic approach
Of course carbon offsetting is not a panacea. Climate change is a pressing and long-term global problem, and carbon offsetting can only be a short- to medium-term response to it.
More efforts should be focused on shifting political, corporate, and human mindsets, and, in more practical terms, we need to develop renewable energy sources and increase energy efficiency. But one irony is that such efforts could be funded by carbon offsetting, and by marshalling the troops against it, some commentators are reducing the chances that it can be solved, both by reducing the cash flow from such sources, and by fostering cynicism in pro-environment activity (as shown by the Daily Mail article).
Perhaps more disturbing, however, is the moral framing of the issue. The ‘polluter pays’ principle is lauded by environmentalist commentators when applied to big businesses and countries. But when it comes to individuals, moral arguments against it are marshalled – here is Monbiot again: “[Y]ou can now buy complacency, political apathy and self-satisfaction. But you cannot buy the survival of the planet.”
I contend that, although it is not the only way forward, you can to some extent buy the survival of the planet. You may need to be impelled to do so and to overpay for it to have a significant effect, but you can buy it. And if you do, then you should not feel guilty.
Moral absolutism will not win any friends in this most emotional of environmental topics; global citizens, corporations and governments should aspire to reduce their carbon footprint, and if carbon offsetting forms part of these efforts, then it should be welcomed as a short-term, pragmatic part of the mix.