Notes from Catherine Rowett, former Green Party MEP for East of England and deputy coordinator of the Eastern Region Green Party*(UK). Biographical reflections on life as an MEP. Longer reflections and discussions on issues relating to policy, the good life, justice, equality, anti-austerity economics and the future of the planet. This is also a forum for exchanging ideas on how to tread lightly on the planet and avoid supporting exploitation and corrupt practices. Here we go...

Friday, 19 January 2007

Offsetting carbon emissions

Here's one way of seeing how it stinks:

Say you've got some migrant child labourers on your farm, who work for no pay and are not free to leave, though you do provide them with some board and lodging. Someone points out that you're using slaves.
That gives you pause for thought. You didn't think you really approved of slave-owning. You don’t think people should really be treated like that; it's exploitation; but it's extremely convenient and the children do work hard. You can't really bring yourself to give it up; in fact you pretty well depend upon it for making a profit. To salve your conscience you send some money to Amnesty International, trusting that they will use it to alleviate the lot of some people who are in trouble somewhere. But you go on exploiting the child slaves. But now you don't worry about that, because you've offset their suffering against the relief of some suffering in some other unjust regime. As long as the total amount of human suffering is not increased by your activities, the world is no worse a place due to your participation in the exploitation of child labour, is it?

Now suppose you fancy a fur coat but someone explains to you that the fur is obtained from animals of an endangered species who are trapped in the wild and then caged, living a miserable life before being slaughtered in large numbers to make your coat. You don't much care for the practice, but you really fancy that coat. So you give a donation to the world wildlife fund, to offset the cruelty to the animals that went to make your fur coat. After all, you're very wealthy so this is no hardship. Then you don't have to worry your conscience about them any more. As long as the sum total of cruelty to animals is no greater for what you've done, it's alright to support the cruel practices involved in making the fur coat, isn't it? You wouldn't want to have to give up the pleasure of being seen in a smart fur coat. That would be too much to ask.

Now suppose you habitually book a holiday in Florida or Australia, to get away from it all, but someone points out that the flights are contributing to the damage to the environment and anyone who believes in carbon reduction should cut their flying to a minimum. You are committed to the importance of carbon reduction. You don't believe in exploiting the earth's resources to extinction. But you really enjoy your holidays.
So you give some money to a tree-planting scheme, to offset the damage caused by the fuel of your aircraft. After all, you're quite wealthy so this is no hardship. Now you don't have to worry about what you're doing to the environment any more. As long as the carbon emissions are no greater as a result of your actions, it's fine to take as many long haul flights and drive your gas-guzzling car and use as much heating as you like, and so on for all the rest, isn't it? You wouldn’t want to have to give up the expensive holidays to save the earth would you? That would be too much to ask.


Ru Hartwell said...

Its more complex a situation than the one you describe, Catherine. As the director of an offset treeplanting company, I deal with customers every day and I can assure you that the vast majority of these people are very concerned to reduce their carbon footprint to a minimum and their decision to offset voluntarily helps them to acknowledge that what they are doing is destructive and thus sets them on a path to flying less.

Catherine Rowett said...

Of course there may be many who are seriously trying to reduce their carbon emissions to a minimum, but I detect a rise in the willingness to accept things that do cause carbon emissions, once one has found a way out that makes it acceptable. The real issue is, what do we mean by a minimum?

It seems to me that holidays abroad are not a necessity.

And shops and businesses that "offset" their carbon footprint clearly feel free to use things that they would not use if they had to try to cut their carbon, not offset it. It's become a means of getting customers: it's turning into a commercial racket. But what we need to do is educate ourselves to want less of the damaging stuff, so that we can reduce it as well as increasing the tree planting activities. The latter shouldn't be seen as an alternative to the former.