Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

A Gold-Star Guide to Buying off Green Guilt

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

A Gold-Star Guide to Buying off Green Guilt

Article excerpt


MR MILIBAND has announced a spiffy new consumer service from the Government - a "gold standard" rating for carbon offsetting schemes. These firms sell conscience salves to preening greens. Instead of changing their polluting behaviour, by recycling more and travelling less, for example, affluent eco-sinners can now buy themselves indulgences.

You can go to a website, calculate how bad you have been or intend to be, and pay it all off. Various forms of semi-magical offsetting are available.

You can pay to have a tree planted, here or in Africa, to breathe in and "sequestrate" carbon dioxide in your memory in years to come.

You can donate to companies developing renewable technologies or alternative energy projects. You can send low-energy light-bulbs to developing countries.

Most mystically, you can purchase "carbon dioxide credits" from a Climate Exchange programme and "retire" them, ensuring nobody else can claim them.

The price varies from [pounds sterling]2 to [pounds sterling]20 per notional tonne. A typical website offers to offset one short-haul flight for [pounds sterling]6.80 through re-afforestation in Kenya, or for [pounds sterling]10 through planting one broad-leafed tree in the UK, though for this price you do get a certificate in the post and an endorsement by Bill Oddie.

In one sense, there is no way of knowing what effect, if any, payments to these firms will really have.

Perhaps the trees would have been planted anyway. Perhaps, like Coldplay's mango trees in India, they will soon die. Poor farmers may be forced off their land. And a recent study has suggested that planting forests anywhere outside the tropics to mitigate climate change is a complete waste of time anyway.

In another sense, the effect of offsetting is obvious and quite infallible.

The offsetter feels a warm glow of self-satisfaction, while carrying on just as before. It's a whole new way of feeling morally superior to your neighbours, a delectable little spa treatment for the conscience.

Quite marvellously, the whole ecological horror facing us has in this way been turned into yet another shopping opportunity. It suggests that individuals can buy their way out of guilt without changing their behaviour.

It's the sort of solution to their sins that people have dreamed of throughout human history.

"As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs!"

the papal commissioner for indulgences in Germany promised, to Martin Luther's wrath.

Now it's the offsetter's assumption.

If there is to be any effective response to global warming, it will obviously require systemic change in the way we live. Each of us buying our own personal get-out-of-jail-free cards will make almost no contribution - save to our sense of enhanced righteousness. …

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