Among mega-companies, offsets seem to be the buzzword when it comes to slashing CO2 emissions. In fact, it has even become popular among regular citizens seeking to go green while maintaining flights, pleasure cruises and the like.
What are offsets? Basically it works like this. If you go on a carbon-emitting flight to, say, New York, you calculate roughly how much CO2 your flight emitted, and then try to soak it up, usually by planting trees. One year in Sydney, town authorities planted trees to offset carbon emissions from New Year's fireworks. (This piece will focus largely on tree-planting offsets).
Now I know what you're thinking, it does seem too good to be true right?
Yes, it probably is.
Offsets- like planting trees- sound good. But are they?
Lets examine some scientific evidence. Trees take many years to mature to an age where they are capable of even absorbing the carbon from a motorbike, let alone a plane trip. Younger trees certainly do not absorb as much carbon as older ones, meaning that the trees you plant as offsets might not be living up to your expectations. Maintenance of forests can be notoriously difficult, especially if trees are planted outside their optimum climates, and can release CO2- think forest rangers, tractors, etc. Take for example Coldplay's offsets project: which ended up with nothing more than dead mango trees, which, when decomposing release more CO2 into the atmosphere.Sorry gents. Guess Death and all his friends paid a visit to those mango trees.
Invasive species also form part of the critique against offsets. As everyone knows, certain trees are meant to be grown in certain places only. When green-minded dreamers ignorant of the facts mess with this, things get icky. For example, eucalyptus trees are often planted to deliver fast results. However, planted in Third World countries, its' thirst for water kills other native species, and deprives the soil of nutrients while not returning enough nutrients. According to my copy of The Earth Report 2, a 100sqm hybrid eucalyptus plantation, in one year, takes up 1594 kg of calcium, and returns only 335 kg.
Even if eucalyptus and similar trees are not used, the want of quick offsets, and a lack of regulation means that local ecosystems and animal habitats could get seriously messed up. To make matters worse, there have been claims that indigenous communities have been forced off their land to make way for tree-planting projects, as evidenced by a World Rainforest Movement report documenting land disputes and human rights abuses at Mount Elgon, Uganda, where 300 families were chased off their land.
Other forms of offsets, like investing in clean technology, (members of the public usually donate to wind-farm developments) might show more promise than tree-planting. But again, there are risks. Without proper documentation, regulation and information disclosure, people could just get swindled into donating to failed projects. Wikipedia cites:
-widespread instances of people or organizations buying worthless credits that do not reduce
-companies profiting from doing very little to actually reduce emissions
-a shortage of verification making it difficult for buyers to confirm the value of their donations
Investments in clean-tech could be a good form of offsets. With regulation. Maybe.
Whatever happens in the whole offsets business, the fact remains that we need to CUT emissions, not try to balance them out. That means nixing the SUVs and the drives to places within walking distance. That means saving energy, and practicing the 3R concept. Whatever governments say or do, we, the people, have the real power to save Earth.