Green groups challenge 'carbon-neutral' claims

A coalition of small environmental groups has fired a powerful salvo against schemes offered by companies like Future Forests and Climate Care which claim to offset carbon dioxide emissions through tree planting or other activities. The attack coincides with the launch of a "carbon-neutral" Hollywood disaster movie portraying the fictionalised effects of global warming.

The Day After Tomorrow, launched on 28 May, shows the Northern hemisphere gripped by a sudden ice age following a sudden change in ocean circulation, and scenes of New York being inundated by a massive tidal wave.

While the events are far from scientifically credible, they no doubt make gripping viewing. And to match the film's global warming theme, director Roland Emmerich has paid to "neutralise" the 10,000 tonnes of CO2 released in making it through an agreement with Future Forests.

Future Forests provides businesses and individuals with means of "offsetting" carbon dioxide emissions by investing in compensatory measures such as planting trees or installing energy-efficient lighting in developing countries.

In the case of The Day After Tomorrow, the CO2 emissions will be offset by energy efficiency projects in the Caribbean and the USA, and forestry projects in California and Bhutan.

The film is simply the latest in a burgeoning list of high-profile projects and companies claiming to be "carbon neutral". Companies like Future Forests, Climate Care, and Climate Cool are in the business of selling what are effectively carbon credits. The companies say their credits are independently certified - for example, Future Forests' offsets are verified by the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Management (ECCM) and audited by KPMG.

There has been an upwelling of interest in such products. Future Forests' many clients include BP, Honda, Volvo, the Environment Agency, Sainsbury's, Orange, Pricewaterhouse Coopers, London Electricity, Tetrapak, Barclays, Avis, the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment, Arthur D Little, Casella Stanger, rock group Coldplay, pop group Atomic Kitten, the Brit Awards and British Gas. Climate Care lists British Airways, Business in the Community and the Cooperative Bank.

However, an alliance of small environmental organisations has now mounted a challenge to the "carbon neutral" market with a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority. The Corner House, Carbon Trade Watch, SinksWatch, Rising Tide, Worldforests, Soljuspax and Clean Development Mechanism Watch have claimed that Future Forests and Climate Care are making misleading claims in their advertisements.

The complaints refer to two adverts from Future Forests, which appeared in Tower Records and Barclays Bank, and one by the Co-Op published in The Ecologist magazine which cites Climate Care.

The adverts offer to "offset" or "neutralise" CO2 emissions, without referring to scientific doubts about the principle involved and the accuracy of the calculations. The groups point out that the British Code of Advertising requires claims to reflect "any significant division of scientific opinion".

The complaints also raise doubts about whether the claimed emission savings are "additional" - in other words, whether the companies are really reducing emissions below a "business as usual" baseline. Similar rows over additionality and the robustness of credits from carbon "sinks" have also dogged the market for more formal carbon credits under the Kyoto Protocol's clean development mechanism (ENDS Report 344, pp 29-34 ).

"We are concerned that these companies are indirectly blocking the real solution to global warming, which is reducing and finally halting fossil fuel burning," Heidi Bachram of Carbon Trade Watch said.

"The idea that people can burn fossil fuels and then plant trees to clean up the carbon dioxide is simply wrong," she said. "This false 'solution' will merely keep people digging up oil and coal, instead of trying to shift to clean energy."

The groups support the case for planting trees, but argue that this should not be traded against continuing use of fossil fuels. "It's the difference between green action and greenwash," says Mandy Haggith of Worldforests.

Jutta Kill of SinksWatch, which monitors tree-planting projects, said "there is enormous controversy about how much carbon dioxide any given tree planting can take out of the air, and for how long."

Larry Lohmann of the Corner House pointed to the uncertainties in the calculations used to estimate how much of an improvement can be expected from mitigating measures over business as usual scenarios. "There are huge disputes raging over these calculations. Experts are coming up with estimates that differ by orders of magnitude."

Future Forests says it found the action of the environmental groups "disappointing". Chief executive Jonathan Shopley said: "We agree on the big issue but this is not about giving people a licence to pollute. We are giving clients the opportunity of going the extra 90% and offsetting unavoidable emissions."

Dr Richard Tipper of ECCM added that the complaint "does not provide a true reflection of the science and good practice relating to the quantification of carbon storage benefits of forests....[the] uncertainties do not render the measurement or estimation of benefits invalid."

A notable feature of the debate so far is that the big-name environmental organisations are not involved in the action. Indeed, most have been strangely silent on the issue of carbon neutrality, though they have taken care not to endorse carbon-neutral products.

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