upsetting offsetting

Nobody wants to hear the arguments against air travel Or at least, nobody wants to act on them. It may be true that air travel adds only 0.023% to total greenhouse gas every year, but there’s another statistic that’s much more relevant here. For any individual person, any Mrs Normal, giving up air travel is the single biggest contribution we can make to keeping the earth cool.

Direct emissions of CO2 from every UK adult are 6 tonnes, of which 1.8 are air travel, (1.2 car travel, 1.2 heating, 0.6 from appliances, 0.1 from cooking and 0.1 from lighting.) Passenger numbers are up 500% in thirty years, and our government is planning for that to more than double by 2030 – 476 million journeys a year.

The only thing they’ll listen to, the only way it will stop, is if we say we don’t need or want those extra journeys. If we stop buying plane tickets.

If we discount lovemiles and work miles (all those medecins sans frontiers jetting off to save earthquake victims, all those peacekeepers keeping the peace – all those salespeople going to marketing jamborees in Dubai…) what we’re left with are – holidays.

Why do we need holidays in exotic places anyhow? It can’t be a coincidence that we invented HDTV and plasma screens just in time to record David Attenborough Frankly, what holiday is going to give you more?

One hope is that eventually there’ll be so many Extreme Weather Events that Thailand, India and Florida will seem like excessively high-risk trips. But that seems slightly unfair on the unfortunates who have to live there.

So we’re left with the excuses. What are they? My favourite is ‘travelling to distant places increases world peace and understanding’. It might, but you’d probably have to leave the beach.

Then there’s their economies depend on tourism’. More like, ‘the tour operators’ Ferraris depend on tourism’. How many people bother to make sure the profits of their holidays stay locally, with the people who look after them? If you have to travel, check out the Ecotourism site to find out. Ecotourism seems a bit of an oxymoron to me, but these people are apparently about fair trade, not yoga and pineapple massages.

Then there’s ‘it’s okay, I offset.’ We need to talk about offsetting. Offsetting is not a magic bullet. It’s not anything, except a way of dumping your dirt on somebody else’s doorstep. Offsetting does not nullify or obliterate the carbon you spew into the atmosphere. It takes years for a tree to absorb all that CO2. By the time those trees you think they’ve planted on your behalf are sucking up that gas, it’ll be way, way too late.

Then, when it’s logged or burned or just decays, the CO2 is back in the atmosphere, and you’re back in the naughty chair. (In fact planting trees may well  increase global warming as after a while trees give back their CO2. And the warmer it gets, the faster it happens)

But it’s an ill wind that blows nobody a bonus: carbon traders are doing very nicely out of offsetting. Carbon offsetting and trading don’t benefit the non-polluters. Nor do they reduce emissions. Instead, they create a fictional commodity that can then be traded in a ‘virtual marketplace’ for real profit.

Last year, the value of the trade in carbon – this is just moving virtual emissions round in virtual space – hit sixty-four billion dollars Or, to put it another way, $64,000,000,000. Or, to make the point more subtly – LOTS OF MONEY.

And something between ten and thirty per cent of that ends up as profit in the pockets of bankers. The carbon traders in America are leaning hard on all candidates to endorse Kyoto’s successor not because they want to save us all, but because of the prospect of the trillions they can expect to make out of it.

There were no merchant banks with carbon trading desks in Kyoto; at the next climate talks, in Bali, they were there in jet-loads.

Go on, take that long-haul flight – make a trader happy.