ESSAY: No carbon, lots of credit

Austin Williams | 12 October 2006

In the not so distant past, charitable giving to the poor and starving in Africa was seen as a legitimate – if reasonably passive way – or trying to change the world, improve the lot of humanity, raise their standards of living, and cock a snook at intransigent political and business leaders in the West. Charity-giving often simply represented a profound cynicism with big government, but it also conveyed a belief that ordinary people in the west could, and should, challenge the devastation of drought, famine and natural disasters. The money raised represented a positive investment in the project to raise Africa out of its subsistence level of existence. It also challenged the iniquitous notion that the West had the right to ‘give’ aid with strings attached, which inevitably ensured that the under-developed world would remain in thrall to western capitalist agencies. In those days too, drought was seen, as a political act.

Today, drought and famine are frequently seen as purely natural disasters. Likewise, charitable giving has become the complete opposite of what it was in the heady days of Live Aid. The ‘New Aid’ is seldom called ‘charity’ and rarely explained beyond the need for a ‘shared view of fairness’ but it is a growing industry. The latest big idea is ‘carbon offsets’. This entails calculating your CO2 emissions arising from your car driving, shopping, energy usage, etc, and paying an equivalent sum into a Third World charitable enterprise for the privilege.

Ssuch indirect charitable giving has become an act so passive, that the issues, locations and even the sums involved are frequently unknown to the donors. Unlike the previous era there is an acceptance of the unquestioned legitimacy of the strings attached. Donors are no longer wary of business interests in the underdeveloped world, but embrace them. As such, a growing number of small capitalist enterprises are hailed as legitimate mechanisms for increased moral intervention in the Third World. The old ambition for raising Africa up has been replaced with a sustainable demand to minimise its growth. I certainly could never say, ‘bring back Midge Ure, all is forgiven’, but compared to today’s insidious campaigns for increased intervention in the Third World, the naïve oppositional rhetoric of the 80s seems positively radical.

‘When you drink one, Africa drinks one too’ says the Onederful advertisement on hoardings around London, promoting a new soft drink for the caring executive classes. ‘All profits,’ it boasts, ‘go to build unique roundabout water pumps.’ And so, it seems, while you quench your thirst after a workout in the gym, children in Africa are getting a work out in order that they can have a drink. Some marketing manager somewhere must have thought that there was a beautiful symmetry to such a globally charitable slogan. These water pumps, celebrated in Cameron Sinclair’s latest book ‘Design Like you Give A Damn’, are designed to look like a children’s roundabout. Ingeniously, each playful rotation raises water from a well, and so youngsters can now, it seems, do something socially responsible instead of just playing selfishly for themselves.

But regardless of the paternalistic pretention of this scheme (this roundabout is nothing other than a hand pump), and its deception (this is child labour dressed up as doing children a favour), this is a way of acclimatising the third world to their own lack of development and infrastructure. Children in developing countries want iPods like anyone else, but schemes such as this alter the existing situation only so much that their poverty doesn’t look so bad to the Western eye.

Back in the 80s, Bob Geldof’s Live Aid threw down a conscious challenge to the public to ‘Give us your fucking money’. Not very diplomatic and ever-so-slightly contemptuous, but at least he was prepared to engage politically and try to earn our money. More recently, it seems that there has been a search for more novel, reflexive or unconscious ways to be charitable. Tapping into the Western consumer culture is the latest hassle-free method of charitable giving. This is charity without the inconvenience of inconvenience; without the annoyance of having to convince someone of the merits of the case.

This is the fault of the so-called charitable organisations, you understand, not necessarily the donors. For it is the organisations that don’t want to have an argument about the legitimacy of the cause they are defending. However, in turn, this passive approach has tended to undermine the desire for an active engagement in, or basic knowledge of, the object of their charity by those making the donation.

This model was best exemplified by Bono’s ‘Red’ designer Motorola mobile phone: Buying a phone anyway? Why not buy this trendy one for a little bit more and the proceeds will let a black baby live for another day or two. No skin off your nose. Subverting the everyday into a political act still needs some kind of acknowledgement. In this way, the recognition of the charitable act, rather than the act itself, provides the necessary sense of engagement for participants. Thus their symbols of moral worth: the bright wristbands, phones, water bottles, etc, are frequently identifiable to only the select few – a nudge-nudge community of the brand ‘Aid’. People can feel as if they’ve participated in a worthy act and, importantly, to be seen to have engaged politically, even though they have simply bought a product with the donation built in. The fact that they haven’t altered their daily routine, or know what it is that they are reputed to have participated in, is immaterial.

The latest stage in this creeping process of unwitting charitable activity makes Bono’s sanctimoniousness sound positively engaging. As Africa has slipped further down the political map, climate change has moved centre stage as the ultimate feelgood crisis. This is a moral dilemma with no argument needed; everyone, it seems agrees uncritically that global warming is potentially devastating and that ‘something has to be done’.

A quarter of a century ago, at least Geldof saw people as part of the solution (his beef at the time was with intransigent professional politicians). Today, aid agencies, especially those working on environmental projects, frequently see people as the problem. The more consumer-driven, modern or economically advanced we become, the more we are deemed to be harming the future of Gaia. The consequences of seeing ordinary actions and lifestyles as inherently detrimental to the planet are paradoxical; reinforcing both a sense of self-loathing as well as a moral piety. The Guardian offers some assistance in that ‘if you really can’t, or don’t want to, change your lifestyle to reduce the damage you do to the planet, you could consider doing something to offset it.’

Eco-aid giving has now been turned into a contemporary form of absolution, saving you from the guilt of the modern world. And ‘carbon offsets’ are the Holy Grail. This idea is that anything that you do; from driving a car, to taking a holiday to boiling a kettle, gives rise to carbon emissions. Having fewer cups of tea is one of reducing your carbon footprint (the amount of carbon that you produce through your actions) and is seen as a positive objective, although having a zero-emissions (or even a positive feedback) effect is ideal. Planting a tree, for example, will help produce oxygen and remove some CO2 from the atmosphere; whereas powering your home from renewables sources (wind turbine, [photovoltaic cells, etc) can mean that surplus power can be fed back in to the system resulting in a net positive carbon impact.

The premise in all environmental campaigns is that it is your (yes, your) profligate, energy-wasting, water-polluting, carbon-emitting western consumer pattern that is fuelling the crisis of the planet in the first place. Without wanting to voice it as baldly as that, environmental aid agencies are sneakily forcing consumers to act benignly through their everyday activity. Unconscious participation is the new political big idea. Environmentalists are happy for us to sleepwalk into accepting their agenda, but it is about time that people woke up to the consequences of the actions being carried out in their name.

Nowadays, charitable environmental organisations operate ironically. They assume that we are so wrapped up in Western consumer culture that change has to be engineered through the subversion of that very consumer culture. Thus, environmental groups are now using consumerism – the traditional object of their ire – as a way of legitimating their programme of activities without the consumer necessarily knowing about it. This cynical approach to funders – or donors as they used to be called – is surely a new low in the long history of environmental contempt for consumers.

The real irony is, of course, that most of these campaigning organisations are large businesses themselves. ClimateCare, for example, ‘was the idea of eco-entrepreneur Mike Mason’ and, in a career move (that has never, to my knowledge, been questioned) Brian Wilson ex-Energy Minister in Blair’s cabinet until 2003, recently became the chairman of the UK Operations Board of Airtricity, the Irish-based renewable energy company constructing windfarms all over Ireland and beyond. Both LandRover and British Gas have bought into ClimateCare’s programme of offsets. The non-executive board members of CarbonNeutral comprise a venture capitalist, an investment banker and an ex-manager at Shell, not that I’ve got a problem with any of these job descriptions, you understand, it simply shows that big business is content to do business with environmentalists. And why not, after all these environmental companies are proper money-making concerns that are gratefully receiving your donations. It’s only the religious right in America that has shown itself equally adept at convincing the beguiled. They, like the environmental campaigners, engage in careful promotional work to make them appear suitably benevolent to encourage innocent people – as well as repenting sinners – to donate their hard earned cash.

For some eco-businesses, instead of developing a profitable business plan, to encourage shareholder investment (with the attendant awkwardness of accountability), or to manufacture and sell useful products to raise capital, they prefer to use donations to prop up their organisations. Others prefer to provide their more discerning clientele with a carbon-free environmental service as an added-value treat. Still others are diverting resources into low-tech (carbon-free) technologies as way of capturing a new market share. Carbon neutrality is, for all businesses, simply an exercise in Corporate Social Responsibility.

So combining the worst elements of all the previous trends with a few new ones, environmental campaigners are now asking people to ‘donate’ in the most passive way possible. Students at Linacre College, Oxford may not realise that Thabit Al-Murani, their student environmental representative has pledged around £1250 (to be paid for by the student body) to ClimateCare to make the college the first carbon neutral college in Oxbridge . The Carbon Footprint agency (motto: ‘It doesn’t cost the earth to save the planet’) has done a number of deals with third parties to make saving the planet as painless as possible. Via the Carbon Footprint, for example, you can join Weightwatchers and they will offset 1500Kg of CO2 ; or 2500Kg when you subscribe to dating agency . What does this mean? Well in simple terms, will give a sum of money, via Carbon Footprint, to a carbon neutral campaigning group to do good works. The financial sum has been assessed as the cost of whatever is needed to absorb an equivalent amount of carbon that has been emitted as part of your everyday activities. In the past it might have been called a discount, whereas now it is disguised as an ethical trade off.

The World Land Trust (WLT) is offering to offset 140kg of your despicable carbon usage if you simply send them a text message. What could this mean? Well, simply that the text nets WLT £1.50 (after network charges have been deducted) and they will plant a tree to the equivalent amount (about a twigful). Call me cynical, but the WLT is a conservation organisation whose very raison d’etre is to plant trees around the world, so it all seems like a canny way to get more cash and a higher profile. And while they boast that ‘you can sleep soundly, safe in the knowledge that we have taken care of (your emissions) for you’ it offers texters the chance to win ‘free carbon neutral flights to Tenerife.’ Climate Relief on the other hand, will send an unsuspecting friend a £20 gift voucher worth 100kg emissions . Ideal for the man who has everything.

The Guardian alleges that if you’ve done 120 school runs in a 4×4, then £1.50 should be enough to clear your conscience and if you buy your 4×4 from then they’ll offset 3 tonnes of carbon. (Before you get too excited, this salesman patter simply nets the equivalent of a £30 discount.)

If you are planning on holding an event to explain all this, the WLT (not to be confused with the Woodland Trust) ask for a ‘contribution of £1000 or above (to) offset the CO2 travel and venue emissions (sic) from a business conference or training event.’ But for the really guilty, they suggest that ‘an investment of £20,000 or above can offset at least 800tonnes of carbon dioxide (close to the annual heating and lighting related emissions of 140 households’) . Presumably, then, this is what used to be called a ‘subsidy’ to shore up a company; now it is an ‘investment’ in the future of the planet. And it can be done from your home with the minimum of fuss of involvement.

It is reputed that each tree planted by one of these companies offsets about 730kg CO2 over its lifetime, whereas each person actually uses/ creates about 7000kg per year (>500 tonnes a lifetime). So model citizens should plant 10 trees per year for the rest of their lives. As it happens, ‘temperate forests in developing countries such as the US, UK and Canada have actually been expanding over the past 40 years’, so things aren’t as black as they’re painted, even in the terms of the debate. However, let not the facts get in the way of an ecological bandwagon.

BP has launched a new non-profit initiative called TargetNeutral to counter the fact that ‘a typical motorist will generate around four tonnes of CO2 over 10,000 miles which would cost £20 to offset.’ Simply pull up at a service station, fill up and if you are using one of their loyalty cards, you can automatically pay the sum to TargetNeutral and BP will match it. You haven’t got to do a thing; it’s automatic. If you’re not yet convinced, rest assured that Jonathan Porritt, chair of the UK Sustainable Development Forum will be part of ‘an independent panel’ (sic) to oversee its actions. Mind you, BP aren’t totally convinced themselves asking: ‘is BP genuine in trying to tackle the problem of global warming, or is it simply a PR stunt that jumps on the green bandwagon? We’d like to hear from you.’ If you buy into BP’s selfless motives, your money goes to fund wind turbine projects in India and Mexico that BP are committed to building anyway. But any extra cash wouldn’t go amiss.

Carbon trading is everywhere. If you buy a new house (the environment to which most anthropogenic carbon emissions are attributed) then estate agency, GreenMoves (‘the directors’ we are assured, ‘all have environmental backgrounds’) will find you energy efficient properties and will reinvest ‘some of its income’ in a tree to offset your cavalier demand for a house in the first place.

CO2Balance lets you buy a tree for a birthday or christening or a broadleaf tree with a plaque for a wedding anniversary that will set you back £50. With an average payback period of 3 years, the company might like to consider a package deal including a divorce shrubbery. ‘The birth of a child is a particularly special time,’ it says, ‘mark the moment by planting a tree and watch it grow with the child.’ That’ll be fun.

ClimateSure is ‘the world’s first insurance product with carbon offsets built in.’ In the same way that a pension scheme invests in the future without you being aware of the money coming out of your account, so ClimateSure takes a portion of your investment and does heartwarming things with it, unbeknownst to you. Its sister organisation ClimateCare is supported by British Airways and BA’s Chief Executive, Rod Eddington, speaking at last June’s Geneva ‘Aviation and the Environment Conference’ said that ‘it makes sense for the aviation industry to be supportive of the incorporation of our CO2 emissions into the EU Emissions Trading Scheme – as long as this is done in a sensible way without distorting competition.’ In his 2004/ 2005 Corporate Responsibility Report he says ‘taking a responsible approach to social and environmental issues remains crucial to our business performance and its future success.’ BA charge £28.83 on top of the price of a return flight from London to Sydney to help you do their bit.

Take the figures with a pinch of salt though, because they are, effectively, made up. Lots of websites have set up basic software programmes to allow you to assess your impact on the planet, but there seems to be little consistency. For example, CO2Balance tell me that a return flight from Newcastle to Belfast clocks up £9-worth of CO2. Surely it’s more than 3 times as far to Sydney? (see BA costs above). CO2Balance also say that the same £9-worth of CO2 emissions (0.16tonnes) are caused by travelling 600miles in a 1.4L petrol-engine car, whereas ClimateCare says that the same car journey racks up 0.18 tonnes of CO2 costing £1.35. Then again, Carbon Footprint assess it as 0.149 tonnes which can be offset ‘by planting 0 trees’. The Scotsman writes that driving 12,000 miles in a family saloon releases 3.6 tonnes and costs just £20 whereas Newcastle Council state that one tonne of CO2 offset costs £13.65 . So it seems that if you shop around, you can get some good deals… but maybe that’ll just make you feel even more guilty.

Obviously, the basis of carbon trading schemes is that they can’t offset carbon produced in the West, say, by investing in a technology that produces carbon emissions in the offset country. That would be ‘irresponsible’. Therefore all of these agencies that have sprung up over the last five or so years, are engaged in low or alternative technology projects in the under-developed world.

ClimateCare, for instance, invest in low or zero carbon emissions projects in Kazakhstan, amongst other places. Here, the silly Kazakhstanis use ‘traditional incandescent lights in buildings’ but by donating to ClimateCare, you are investing in a project called ‘Education for Sustainability and Climate Change in Central Asia’ which delivers ‘workshops to 98 schools to teach children about climate change… supported by posters, CDs and a teachers’ handbook.’ The project partners are ‘developing a monitoring and verification plan’ implying that if the scheme doesn’t meet target objectives then something’ll have to give. Oh, and they can forget about real development using more carbon intensive and effective technology.

ClimateCare also fund projects in India, where they are encouraging villagers to stop using forest wood for fuel so that the indigenous tiger’s habitat is preserved; or it employs 400 people in Uganda to clear grassland to plant trees to satisfy the needs of the indigenous primate population. Did you know that you were funding a scheme that promotes wildlife over people – even wildlife that eats people? And what’s that got to do with climate change? Given that the carbon offset scheme is premised on the fact that human activity is endangering nature, then I suppose that it is a small and logical step to put animals before people.

Similarly, WLT is working in Equador at ‘reforesting pasture land’ to provide ‘sustainable habitat to support the extraordinary wildlife in the area.’ In Belize, WLT consider that ‘biodiversity… is threatened by deforestation from farming communities’; while in India they are reforesting ‘critical wildlife corridors… and providing alternative farming techniques where necessary.’ Presumably if the wildlife corridor is across farmland, then the farmland has to go. Also, presumably ‘alternative farming techniques’ don’t include anything mechanical or petrol-driven.

Meanwhile, GoZero’s carbon offset scheme funds ‘a crop-tree planting scheme in Tamil Nadu that not only captures carbon dioxide by tree growth but provides fruits and nuts.’ How could you not fail to be impressed by such exciting projects: training them to become sustainability auditors; helping to protect tigers in village areas; stopping farmers clearing ground to plant more crops; or allowing farmers to diversify into the delicious cash crop of nuts and fruit; and all done without any modern means of production. Bravo.

In all of these examples, the allusion to the nobility of the indigenous tribes’ people; or the overseeing and monitoring of their performance in the carbon offset programmes, seems faintly colonial.

In Mayer Hillman’s book ‘How We Can Save The Planet’ he argued that giving carbon credits on an equal individual basis across the globe would be a win-win situation for everyone. While we in the West, he argued, may not be so keen to give up our living standards, what does a person in the Third World want with all those carbon credits? After all, they have no car, phone or significant travel plans. This leaves them ‘free’ to sell the credits off to salvage the conscience of the West . Unfortunately, the consequential maintenance of underdevelopment is the real truth behind carbon offset schemes, and one which, unsurprisingly, the marketing managers don’t really want you to know.

Carbon offsets are premised on the notion that modern lifestyles are inherently damaging to the planet: that you are part of the problem. If you agree, then the answer is simple: reduce your consumption, only travel locally (using muscle power), campaign against housebuilding and give generously to the Third World for schemes that treat the environment as sacrosanct. However, bear in mind that even the water-pump roundabout in Africa, paid for by the profits of a bottled water company in the West, can’t really be argued to be zero carbon. After all, the collective CO2 exhalation of malnourished children forced to push a massive playground roundabout in order to extract water, is bound to contribute in some small way to the melting of the polar icecaps.

If however, you think that the under-developed world (by definition) needs development, then the CO2 equation has to be put on the back burner, so to speak. The chief priority is to encourage the liberation of millions of people from grinding poverty, not to make them guilty about wanting the material standards that the West has.

Once the undeveloped world starts developing, we will generate an enlightened view of humanity. Similarly, a more enlightened view of humanity can kick start that development. Meeting this dialectical challenge requires a human-centred, rather than a eco-centric, view of the world. Once we reclaim this agenda for humanity, only then might there be scope for setting a positive agenda for change to deal with environmental factors. At the moment, sanctifying the environment, combined with an anti-humanist guilt, keeps half the world in penury while the other half ponders their purchasing decisions. Unfortunately, consumer choices and carbon offsets are designed to maintain the iniquitous status quo, and make you feel good about it.

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and is producing the Battle over Nature strand at the Battle of Ideas on October 29th


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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