Thursday, 18 January 2007

Trouble In The Offing?

We’re flying tonight.

It hasn’t really sunk in yet. The last couple of weeks have been filled with the inevitable dashing-around-getting-stuff-sorted that precedes any major trip (as well as a few other small things like a full-time job, trips to London, local climate change action meetings and joining a rock band), and so I haven’t really had time to think about it, but - yes, I’m going to Africa tonight.

Look, I can hear all you well-travelled types sniggering to yourselves, but this is a big deal for me, OK? I’ve only been out of Europe twice in my life (once to Morocco, once to the US), so this would be a huge adventure for me even without the World Social Forum. The fact that I’m not only going to Kenya, but that the rest of the world is meeting me there…well, that definitely slots the whole trip neatly into the “pretty ruddy exciting” category.

That is, of course, assuming that I can actually get into the Forum. It seems that my registration (which I sent off back in November) has somehow gone astray, which probably means I can look forward to lots of hilarious confusion, waiting in 1000-person long queues, and desperate pleading with harassed Forum volunteers once I get to Nairobi. Luckily, we’ve arranged to arrive a day in advance, which should give me the leeway to sort things out. Assuming that our flight isn’t delayed tonight, what with all the gales and all. But of course, that would be ridiculous and couldn’t possibly happen.

Still, there’s nothing like minor disasters, stress and panic to make a blog more interesting to read, eh? I’ll keep you all updated.

Several people have now asked me whether I’ll be offsetting my flights. At the risk of launching into rant mode – and with apologies to quite a few lovely people I know who work in the offsetting trade – no, I won’t.

Large numbers of offsetting schemes – particularly those based on tree-planting – are dubious at best, reliant on wobbly science, and in the worse cases actually involve damage to soils, livelihoods, and the potential release of more greenhouse gases than the trees could ever absorb. The simple answer to this, of course, is: look for a reputable offsetting scheme rather than the first dodgy offer that comes along. This is the kind of discerning attitude that the Government is presumably trying to foster with today’s announcement of a new offsetting “Gold Standard”, to sort the good schemes from the bad.

All very nice. But I still won’t be offsetting.

Some of the offsetting schemes out there clearly do good things. Providing more efficient and less polluting technologies to people in poorer countries – if done properly, in cooperation with the communities involved – can have many knock-on benefits for health, income, and food production in areas that desperately need these things.

I’m still not going to offset.

Here’s why:

1) Every offsetting scheme is based on the idea that by reducing emissions somewhere else, we can make up for, or “neutralise”, our own greenhouse gas emissions. This relies on being able to calculate, with certainty, how much CO2 we’re “saving” by supporting a low-carbon scheme somewhere. But to work out how much carbon will be “saved” by say, installing some low-energy technology in a village in Bangladesh, requires somehow working out how much carbon would have been produced by that community if the technology hadn’t been installed, which is far from straightforward. How can we possibly be sure that the greenhouse gas reduction over there is equal to the amount of greenhouse gas emitted over here? Also, offsetting in this way only reduces emissions sometime in the future – but we need enormous cuts in CO2 now if we’re going to have any hope of preventing climate catastrophe.

2) There aren’t enough offsetting opportunities out there to cancel out the huge volumes of greenhouse gases we produce in the rich world. Even if we provided every developing country on the planet with low carbon technologies, without massive reductions in the industrialised nations we’d still all be screwed. It isn’t the poorer nations who are emitting all the carbon dioxide. To be fair, few serious offsetting advocates are suggesting that we could somehow magic all of our carbon away in this fashion, but my fear is that this industry is acting as a huge distraction from the real action that we need. As people get the idea that they can buy off their guilt by giving a few quid to an offsetting company or charity, they are more likely to keep on driving, flying and ramping up the thermostat with a lovely warm glow in their hearts, rather than a (far more useful and appropriate) nasty sick feeling in their bellies. They are also less likely to take all-important political action if they think that some nice companies are somehow going to “sort it all out”.

3) Offsetting lets the Government off the hook as well. There needs to be a massive transfer of low-carbon technology to poorer nations and communities, to give them a chance to develop within a global carbon limit that prevents the worst ravages of climate change. We in the wealthy nations have got rich from carbon. It’s our rampant burning of fossil fuels over the last 150 years that has got us into this environmental crisis – a crisis which will hit poorer nations on a far greater scale than it’ll hit us. This makes it our responsibility to provide the tools – and the money - to help the people of the Global South find a low-carbon route out of poverty. This needs to be happen on a massive scale as part of a binding international agreement. One reason the Government likes offsetting is that it draws attention away from this idea and suggests that we can achieve the same thing through piecemeal projects funded by voluntary donations from businesses and the public. We can’t.

For a better-referenced (and, let’s face it, better-written) explanation of all this, check out:

I don’t want to appease my guilt at flying today. I need that guilt. That guilt is part of the fuel that’s going to keep me campaigning furiously for the massive changes we need in the UK’s power generation, public transport, housing standards, food production, the way we run the economy, and so on if we’re going to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions at the necessary rate.

Here’s how I’m going to make up for the carbon emitted by this flight:

I’m going to admit that none of the following things take any of the greenhouse gases from my flight out of the air, but are all things I should be doing anyway as a privileged citizen of the rich world. This flight has just focused my attention on them and reminded me of my responsibilities.

I’m going to communicate my experiences of the World Social Forum to as many people as possible, to make this trip as worthwhile as I can.

I’m going to give as large a donation as my bank balance allows to People and Planet, to support student activists all over the country in the campaign against climate change.

I’m going to join my voice to (no doubt) the voices of others at the WSF to try to find a way to reduce the travel impacts of this kind of global gathering.

I’m going to devote myself to a mass national grassroots campaign to challenge our Government to set binding carbon reduction targets (based on science, not politics), and take the radical action needed to meet them.

And most of all, I’m going to stop flying.

This is the last one.

You know what? I think I actually mean that.

Danny xXx


naomi said...

Hey Danny! Good on you, i'm glad to hear about your travels to the WSF! I'll check back in to hear about your experiences, and i enjoyed your perspective on offsets. I've been thinking about this for a while - especially the idea that offsets in the form of planting trees does not help much unless it is done VERY thoughtfully, i.e., fostering the local biodiversity. I can't say i'm very optimistic about the likelihood of that.

All the best - naomi

Noura said...


As much as your trip to South Africa is fuelled by rage against British practices, it's refreshing to hear about Gold Standards and the like: even if it's just lip service, at least there's mention of climate change. Here in Saudi, it's like they're just discovering industrialization. New economic cities popping up everywhere. My favorite? The Jizan Economic city: "Where local energy drives global business." The selling point is that our competitive advantage is our cheap natural resources, the "trademark of Saudi Arabia." Using it we will attract lucrative business from around the world and become richer and richer and.... Mwaahahahahahahaha.


I hope you enjoy your (last) flight and that there are movies to keep you entertained.


Sophie said...

Hey Danny, and anyone who reads this - appreciate your rant against offsets but check this out if you get a chance -
We are just getting ready to launch this next week. An offset with a difference because - it does not claim to be the answer to global warming; it helps conservation of internationally endangered trees; and genuinely helps people who are going to be worst hit by climate change. The communities we work with have no access to the political process due to living hours away from any roads and spending the majority of their time just trying to find enough water to survive. Plus they happen to be in your current host country. I'm going to visit some of them next month, I will offset my flight, but I don't think that that will make me feel any better about flying there, so don't worry about that part of it!

looking forward to catching up with you soon!
best wishes

Danny said...

Hey All,

Great to hear from you and thanks for your comments!

Naomi and Sophie: obviously, sensitive tree-planting (the right trees, in the right place, with the full involvement of the community, to fulfil local environmental and social goals) can be a fantastic thing. Trees rule. We just can't pretend that they'll somehow magically making all our carbon dioxide go away (I did a big chunk of research on this during my Masters and most of the science biotic sequestration claims to be based on is...speculative, to say the least, and utter cobblers, to be a bit more blunt).

Noura - One of my big shocks at the WSF is how patchy the awareness and understanding of climate change is outside Europe, North America and Australasia. I'll be writing something along those lines when I sum evrything up at the end...

Danny said...

...oh, and apologies for the grammatical failings of my previous comment. I is not being care of how is write I do as fast in time.