Fiona Harvey Carbon offsetting: the craziness continues

Almost two years ago, I took a look at the fledgling market in carbon offsetting and discovered a lot of rather peculiar practices: companies selling offsets that resulted in no net emissions savings; companies asking consumers to pay them to cut their pollution; companies reaping massive rewards in carbon credits for a tiny outlay. All of these practices, it should be noted, are perfectly legal.

The idea behind offsetting is sound – you pay someone else to make an emissions cut because that is cheaper than you cutting emisions yourself.

But it also gives rise to lots of potential problems – for instance, if you buy a carbon credit from a company has cut its emissions by closing down one of its factories, which it would have closed anyway, is that a sensible use of your money? Most people would say not, but on some carbon offsetting exchanges it’s perfectly possible for companies to be awarded credits, which they can sell on the exchange, for doing just that.

When I was looking into this, one of the people I talked to about offsetting, who didn’t want to be named, made a joke: If I agreed to lie in bed all day with the lights off and the heating off and the air conditioning off and trying not to breathe too much, would I qualify for carbon credits that I could sell? (See a great cartoon form of the joke here.)

Well, it’s a joke no longer. Or at least, nearly. MyEmissionsExchange lets you and your household take a variety of small actions to cut your emissions and sell those emissions cuts as credits.

In some ways, it’s a good idea – it gives people an extra financial incentive – on top of the money they save in energy bills – to engage in better behaviour.

But in other ways, it’s hard to see how it would avoid the pitfalls of misdirected carbon offset spending.

At first, we thought the MyEmissionsExchange site was a joke. After all, they have a man called Norman Airs, PhD, from the Carbon Awareness Institute, enthusiastically extolling the virtues of carbon dioxide – “a wonderful gas”.

But we emailed them to ask and they said, nope, they are definitely for real – although they said Mr Airs is simply a guest on their show and that they did not share his views.