Is carbon credit offsetting a waste of money or a way to save the planet?

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Backing a winner: The Duchess of Sussex is thought to have offset her flight across the Atlantic to watch Serena Williams in the US Open tennis earlier this month


Backing a winner: The Duchess of Sussex is thought to have offset her flight across the Atlantic to watch Serena Williams in the US Open tennis earlier this month

The idea of buying ‘carbon credits’ to save the planet is becoming highly fashionable. 

Just ask the Duchess of Sussex, who apparently purchased some to offset her flight across the Atlantic on her mission to watch Serena Williams in the US Open tennis earlier this month.

But critics say unless you are careful, you could be wasting your money. 

The average person in Britain generates about 11 tons of carbon dioxide every year – from activities such as heating the home and cooking meals. 

But if you were to take a private jet, as enjoyed by Prince Harry and Meghan with their return trip to Elton John’s villa in the South of France in August, you might instantly create at least nine tons of the gas.

Climate change campaigners say human production of carbon dioxide is bad for the environment as it is a greenhouse gas that traps in the heat of the sun – so contributes to melting our polar ice caps.

An increasing number of companies are realising that carbon credits can be used as a marketing tool to lure in donors attracted by the idea they might atone for their pollution sins with some spare cash.

A carbon credit is sold in ‘one ton of carbon dioxide’ units. Prices for such units vary from as little as £6 to more than £20 – the discrepancy reflecting the way environmental firms decide how much it costs to ‘offset’ the harm you’ve done. 

In theory, the money should go to green projects that mitigate the impact of carbon dioxide production, such as planting trees.

Watch out for cold-calling racketeers selling investments

The idea of buying carbon credits as an investment for a future where they have become the norm and are traded regularly may sound exciting – but for most people they should be avoided. 

The industry is not regulated by City watchdog the Financial Conduct Authority, so you cannot seek any redress from the Financial Services Compensation Scheme if your investment goes wrong.

The regulator warns people to steer clear of anyone who contacts them out of the blue to invest in carbon credits – via phone, email or letter. 

Crooks lure in victims promising double-digit annual returns that are simply not true. 

They often use false claims such as schemes having Government support. 

In recent years, The Mail on Sunday’s own ‘Readers’ Champion’, Tony Hetherington, has reported on dozens of scams that have swindled victims out of many thousands of pounds – money that they never see again.

 

If Meghan did offset the pollution generated by her return trip to New York from London via a commercial airline, it would have worked out at 3.5 tons of carbon dioxide flying first class, according to website Carbon Footprint.

This would have been calculated at just one ton if she squeezed into economy, which would have lowered her personal level of pollution because she took up less space.  

Assuming she took the first class option, she would only need to donate just over £20 – perhaps enough to plant a couple of trees in Britain – to claim a downloadable certificate to cover her trip.

Voluntary carbon credits have been around for 10 to 15 years and remain of debatable value to the environment. You are doing some good by purchasing credits if it means supporting environmental measures, such as paying for a tree to be planted or providing fuel-efficient stoves in Kenya.

But it is no substitute for not polluting in the first place.

Experts suggest it is better to take practical steps such as improving home insulation, driving less, taking trains instead of planes where possible, eating less meat and having a green electricity tariff. 

Critics also point out that just throwing a few pounds at a problem is a cheap way to try to show others that you are being virtuous. It is much better to support an environmental charity directly rather than putting a price on your carbon credentials.

The Gold Standard is a not-for-profit organisation based in Switzerland that sets international standards for carbon certificates. 

It ensures that the environmental work is carried out to a high standard before allowing traders to issue their carbon certificates. Separately, the United Nations has a Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) that checks that money is invested in credible projects.

A carbon credit is sold in ‘one ton of carbon dioxide’ units. Prices for such units vary from as little as £6 to more than £20

A carbon credit is sold in ‘one ton of carbon dioxide’ units. Prices for such units vary from as little as £6 to more than £20

Providers that have received Gold Standard accreditation include Atmosfair, ClimateCare and Carbon Footprint. These all offer calculators to show how much carbon dioxide you generate, particularly focusing on flights. 

These companies provide the opportunity for you to offset this carbon by investing in their particular environmentally friendly projects. You get a variety of options – everything from installing solar panels and wind turbines to choosing to plant trees.

Lucas Silbernagel, of Atmosfair, says: ‘We provide an opportunity for people to decide how to make the most of carbon credits and support the environment. But you must first try to mitigate the level of pollution you create through lifestyle changes. 

Using a private jet is a personal choice, but we do not accept it as a reason for buying carbon credits because people who do this have the choice to go on a commercial flight that does more good.’

Although the price of a carbon credit with Atmosfair is higher than for some competitors, this does not mean you are getting less for your money – just that the firm believes the pollution you have created costs more to sort out than other companies calculate.

Chaitanya Kumar, senior policy adviser for environmental think-tank Green Alliance, says: ‘Mechanisms need to be put into place to disincentivise pollution – not to absolve guilt by passing the problem on to someone else.

‘Putting money into projects that support the environment is great – so if carbon credits act as an incentive, this is good. 

But be wary of carbon offsetting projects where traders are aggressively marketing to you. There is money to be made in the market, so there are rogues all too eager to take your cash – sometimes for fake projects or work already done.’

Going communal: Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, and his wife Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, are seen boarding a commercial plane at Hervey Bay Airport, in Hervey Bay, Australia

Going communal: Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, and his wife Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, are seen boarding a commercial plane at Hervey Bay Airport, in Hervey Bay, Australia

Carbon credits are also sold as voluntary emission reductions (VERs) or certified emission reductions (CERs) on special trading markets such as the European Climate Exchange, where large industries have environmental targets to hit. 

This is separate from the carbon credits marketed to individuals that are converted for ‘green’ projects. 

 



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