Saturday, June 7, 2008

Guilt-Free Flying With Carbon Offsets – Buyer Be Aware

(This is the updated version of an article I published in the Palerang and District Bulletin in May 2008. The article was published in conjunction with another article on emissions trading which I published earlier on this blog.)

There are many ways for individuals to reduce emissions, including: changing our energy mix towards more renewable energy, improving the energy efficiency of houses and appliances through insulation and better design, driving less and with fuel-efficient cars, and choosing food and other consumer items with a lower carbon footprint. One area with immediate win-win appeal is carbon-offsets.

The voluntary offset market allows consumers to buy offsets for the carbon emissions associated with using a product or a service. For example, most major airlines in Australia calculate the carbon emissions from a particular flight and then offer the option of flying ‘carbon neutral’ by paying an additional amount that will be used to contribute to a carbon offset project in Australia.

The carbon offset market in Australia has grown substantially over recent years. The Environment Protection Agency (EPA) Victoria estimates that in 2006-2007, around 3.28 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents were traded by Australian carbon offset providers with a value of at least $44 million. In 2007, EPA Victoria and Global Sustainability at RMIT University in Melbourne developed an independent carbon offset guide to give businesses, government agencies, NGOs and private consumers a better overview over the expanding offset market in Australia. This guide is now available online.

Unfortunately, as carbon offsets are a largely unregulated market in Australia, there are also some operators who make misleading green claims in their advertisements. This has prompted the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) to publish an issues paper in January and begin monitoring unsubstantiated claims of ‘low carbon’ or carbon neutrality. The ABC reported on 29 March this year that the ACCC is now taking General Motors to court over green claims made by Swedish car brand Saab, which it distributes in Australia.

Consumers wanting to offset their emissions or make a ‘carbon neutral’ purchase should check whether their offset provider is registered with the Australian Government’s ‘Greenhouse FriendlyTM’ scheme to ensure they get the abatement they are paying for.

Certified Greenhouse FriendlyTM companies undergo an independent assessment of their emissions and offset projects. According to the Greenhouse Friendly website, these projects must occur in Australia, and they must generate additional, permanent and verifiable reductions or sequestration of greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse Friendly™ projects can include energy efficiency measures, waste diversion and recycling, capture and flaring of land fill gas and other fugitive emissions, generation of renewable energy, and tree planting and avoided deforestation projects.

The voluntary offset market is likely to continue even after Australia’s emissions trading scheme is in place, and it will probably take up whatever offsets are not included in the official scheme, although the details are yet to be decided.

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