4 steps to carbon-neutral lifestyle
The mantra for being "green" is Reduce - Re-use - Recycle. Reduce the amount of the resources that we use, reuse items and pass them on when you're finished with them, recycle them once their life-cycle is over.
This doesn't quite work in terms of CO2 - it's difficult to re-use a gas that's been emitted into the atmosphere - so there's a different mantra for going carbon-neutral:
Calculate - Avoid - Reduce - offSet. (C-A-R-S) Calculate the amount of CO2 emissions you produce (your carbon footprint); Avoid emissions where possible, e.g. by cycling instead of driving to work, by turning lights off when you're not using them, etc.; Reduce the remaining emissions, e.g. by taking a UK holiday as opposed to flying down to Rio, using low-energy light bulbs at home, or driving to work in a lower-emission car; Offset whatever's left.
However, it's important to stress that offsetting is the last resort. It's better to avoid carbon emissions in the first place, and it's cheaper too.
Okay, so what is Offsetting?
Carbon offsetting, simply put, is paying someone to make an equivalent emissions saving. There are schemes all over the world that reduce the amount of CO2 emissions that other people made, allowing others to buy into the amount of CO2 that would have been produced - these are called ‘carbon credits'.
In 2008 alone, approximately $700 million of carbon credits were bought by individuals, companies or governments to offset their greenhouse gas emissions, so this is pretty big business.
Why should I care?
Well, there's the whole Climate Change thing going on. The release of extra greenhouse gases - carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, ozone, sulphur hexafluoride, - is increasing the greenhouse effect and contributing to global warming.
If you're feeling guilty about contributing to Climate Change through driving to work, taking a long-haul holiday, or even buying a huge home cinema kit with mega-powerful speakers, carbon offsetting could be for you.
There's also Kyoto...
Kyoto Protocol and the UK
In the Kyoto Protocol - a multi-national agreement aimed at fighting global warming - the UK and 36 other countries (most of Western Europe plus Australia) committed to reducing their emissions of four greenhouse gases (CO2, CH4, N20, SF6) and two groups of gases (hydrofluorocarbons and perfluororocarbons) by 5.2% (as a group) from the 1990 level.
The UK's target is a 12.5% reduction from the 1990 level. This has been further enhanced by the Climate Change Act, which put a duty on the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change to ensure our emissions in 2050 are at least 80% lower than the 1990 baseline.
Okay, you've convinced me, I want to offset my next holiday. How do I know my money is being used wisely?
Australia and the UK have produced national standards for carbon offsetting schemes. The UK standard - the Quality Assurance Scheme (QAS) - was launched in 2009 to assure consumers that offset credits were mitigating the effect of their emissions. QAS only allowed Kyoto-compliant international credits, verified by Government organisations.
QAS will also ensure that emissions are calculated accurately and cannot be bought twice, so you can be sure that the credits you're buying aren't being double counted. QAS-marked providers will also give you more information about the role of offsetting in tackling climate change and how you can further reduce your own emissions.
The Australian scheme - the National Carbon Offset Standard (NCOS) was launched in 2010 to do similar things to the UK scheme.
When is a scheme a scam?
The reason why Australian and the UK set up their quality assurance schemes was to give consumers the confidence that they were actually buying something that existed. This came on the back of a report in 2008 by the US conservation group, Clean Air - Cool Planet - that some retail offset providers didn't specify the projects they funded, how they chose the projects or even why their projects were able to generate CO2 offsets at all.
Planting trees isn't so much a scam as a wasted effort. A study in 2005 reported that planting trees above 20 degrees from the equator had no effect on climate change or may actually be detrimental. While the CO2 that's absorbed through photosynthesis may help to cool the Earth by reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the trees also trap heat from sunlight. The study reported that the further north trees are planted from the equator, the more heat is trapped.
Furthermore, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and the WWF (formerly the World Wildlife Fund) issued a joint statement in 2006 pointing out that while trees do absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, it takes decades for offsets to happen and if the tree dies and rots, or worse if it's burnt, the same amount of CO2 is released straight back into the atmosphere.
Where can I find out more?
QAS schemes: http://offsetting.decc.gov.uk/cms/approved-offsets/
Clean Air - Cool Planet: http://www.cleanair-coolplanet.org/