Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Offsetting - "A dangerous distraction"

Friends of the Earth has characterised offsetting as "having a disastrous impact on the prospects for averting catastrophic climate change" in a report published this week. Entitled "A Dangerous Distraction", the report aims to pull together the evidence on offsetting ahead of the UN talks in Copenhagen in December.

The report primarily looks at the country level and the UK as a case in point, but the arguments is relevant for all uses of offsetting. Friends of the Earth does not mince its words;" There is a growing and credible body of evidence and opinion that offsetting is not working; that it is undermining efforts to prevent dangerous climate change and supporting sustainable development; that it is profoundly unjust, and that it cannot successfully be reformed".

The full report is here, but to summarise the main reasons put forward for the failure of offsetting (and to paraphrase to make it relevant at the company level):

- Less carbon is cut - reductions are in one place, not both ends of the arrangement

- Many 'offset' projects would happen anyway, whether or not used to offset emissions

- There are no guarantees of emissions cuts

- It delays necessary changes in the offsetting country/company

- It undermines low-carbon development in developing countries

Offsetting has had a bad name for some time, so it's no surprise that there are calls for it to be removed from the equation.

To be fair, most of the main IT companies only quote offsetting as a last resort to achieve their emissions reductions targets, but they would be well advised to remove offsetting altogether. It's in danger of losing all credibility and being treated as 'greenwashing', rather than a serious attempt to reduce the impact of emissions.

Of course considerations as to whether offsetting is a legitimate activity also has an impact on those companies developing carbon counting and trading solutions. Offsetting is often an option built in to the reduction targeting aspects of the software, although since such solutions are primarily offered on a 'software-as-a-service' basis it will make no difference to most users.

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