The ‘carbon-offsetting’ question

calculator1.jpgPR gimmick or concern for the environment?

Environmentalists and scientists have time and again issued various warnings of the grave environmental perils that our planet will potentially face because of long-term changes in climatic patterns known as global climate changes. Global climatic changes occur due to a number of reasons, however an issue which has been in the limelight recently is that of ’carbon offsetting’ , with corporate firms worldwide racing to cut down their carbon emissions by supposedly ‘compensating‘ the environment for the same.

Offsetting is balancing the impact of emitting a quantity of greenhouse gas by avoiding an equal amount elsewhere, or removing an equal amount from the atmosphere. Although it appears to be an entirely positive approach , the ’carbon offsetting’ race has also been criticized by some, who argue that this approach to climate change has some major ‘fundamental flaws’. Instead of dealing with the basic problem of carbon emissions into the atmosphere, people are starting to believe that a small amount of money from their side is enough to reimburse the damage caused to the environment. An interesting example is that of Continental Airlines actually selling ‘carbon offsets’ for a nominal price of $10 on board. A recent report from Carbon Trade Watch , entitled ‘The Carbon Neutral Myth’, compares carbon offsetting to the practice of the medieval church selling ‘indulgences’ to absolve sinners.

The list of companies who have decided to go ’carbon neutral’ includes biggies like Google, HSBC, Yahoo!, General Motors, Barclays and many others. The question however is whether or not these firms are genuinely working towards a better environment or is it just a carefully planned PR stint. With ‘carbon offsetting companies’ coming into the picture to help other companies ‘offset’ by funding environmentally friendly projects in developing countries, the issue seems to be getting more commercialized than it was meant to be.

What is amusing is the fact that this important ‘environmental issue’ is turning into a ‘fashionable trend’ for the ‘crème de la crème’ with luxurious resorts putting on offer ‘carbon-free’ spa vacations. Just about a month ago the Six Senses Resorts and Spas, a Bangkok based luxury hotel chain announced that it would make its flagship property in the Maldives- the Soneva Fushi- into a carbon neutral resort by 2008 and go completely carbon free by 2010.

With a large number of countries ratifying the Kyoto Protocol (a climate change treaty assigning mandatory emission limitations for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to the signatory nations), there seems to be some hope. The real question however, is the approach which is being used to go ‘carbon neutral’. The actual emissions are hardly being affected, they are only being ‘neutralized’ by investments made by large corporations in ‘carbon sinks’ or renewable energy generation projects. Whether this is going to be beneficial in the long run, is a question which still remains unanswered.

Vatsala Tibrewalla
Delhi, India