In defence of carbon offsetting
Tejas Ewing interviews Jonathon Porritt, Forum for the Future
Jonathan is an influential figure in British environmentalism. Prior to founding environmental organisation Forum for the Future he was head of Friends of the Earth. He chairs the UK government's sustainable development commission and is a key advisor to the Prince of Wales.
Jonathon Porritt has no qualms about his support for voluntary carbon offsetting. Sitting down at the offices of Forum for the Future, the organisation that he helped build into one of national influence, Jonathon was in no mood to be evasive in our frank discussion. “People simply cannot have a proper carbon management strategy without some element of offsetting. Of course, you must go through the hierarchy of options, such as measurement and reduction, and of course it cannot represent the only pillar of your strategy. But, for any individual or organisation, there will always be unavoidable emissions, and for those, voluntary offsetting is a worthwhile strategy. I have always approached offsetting from that position!”
Jonathon has two direct routes into offsetting at the moment. As an individual, he takes active steps to reduce his carbon footprint, through energy efficiency in the home, using a bicycle for many journeys, and by taking holidays in the UK. However, he still has unavoidable emissions represented mainly by his air travel. In the situations where he feels that the air travel is necessary and productive, he flies and then offsets his emissions. His other direct route into offsetting is professional. In his role at Forum for the Future, Jonathon has helped implement a strategy of responsible offsetting, conducted after all reasonable carbon reductions have been implemented. However, his influence spreads far wider. As chair of the influential Sustainable Development Commission, Jonathon has put much thought into what ‘responsible offsetting’ actually means, and that is where our conversation turns to next.
“Defra has made a mistake with their proposed standard, by focussing only on the Kyoto compliant market. The projects supported by the CDM process are often truly boring and difficult to feel a connection to. Offsetting is very much about personal engagement, and consumers need choice. It is not right to simply eliminate the VER market, especially when UK companies are doing so much interesting and meaningful work in this field.” Jonathon feels that the Government was right to get involved, however, as there is no denying the fact that the voluntary market needs to deal with a lack of credibility in the public eye.
“For people to begin feeling comfortable about offsetting, they must feel that offsets are valid and significant. However, we are in a young and developing market – and people need to be realistic about this. There are many options with variable degrees of integrity – from innovative companies developing excellent projects, to absolute cowboys offering total scams.” To Jonathon, this means that there is an unfortunate burden on the consumer to ensure what is said is actually done – a burden that needs to be overcome soon if the industry is to grow. “At the moment, this means that consumers need to look for some form of proxy assurance, such as third–party verification from NGOs.” He is particularly supportive of the WWF Gold Standard initiative.
However, the current system of competing standards and systems is confusing and counterproductive. In the future he feels that people will need a more verifiable form of assurance, and he thinks the industry needs to drive this process forward. “It is going to be a multibillion dollar market and will need to be verified like any other large market.” To him, the organic movement provides a good example of an industry–led initiative to combat a perceived lack of credibility. “The organic movement understood the need for standards and verification and worked to create them.”
Porritt wonders why the quality offset providers can’t combine forces to create a similarly robust and serious set of certification standards that they all agree to – an industry supplied assurance mark, for example. “The market desperately needs a mechanism to drive out the cowboys, and a single agreed upon ‘gold standard’ for example, would help do this.” For such a system to work and be trusted, it would need to have the highest possible requirements. It would need to be tough, and it would need to compel third party verification and assurance procedures. Such action would be good for the market, by highlighting that the industry is willing to engage with its critics. “Currently, the entire industry is under the same cloud of suspicion, which is patently unfair – but it is up to them to resolve this situation! There is a solution out there…” Whether the industry finds it is another matter.