By Rupert Read
There is a new trend in travel, a new ethical fashion afoot. It is called 'carbon offsetting'. Many of the big rock bands are doing it, for example Pearl Jam, Coldplay, and the Rolling Stones.
Carbon offsetting means taking actions such as planting trees in order to compensate for the damage that one does by burning fossil fuels; for instance, by flying. The coming of carbon offsetting is surely a welcome development, inasmuch as it shows that an increasing number of people are trying to 'offset' the damage that they do to our planetary life-support system when they fly. But how effective is carbon offsetting actually likely to be?
The first point to make is that even in the best case scenario, carbon offsetting only neutralises damage that I am actually doing. It is not a positively good thing; it is not like giving to a worthwhile charitable or political cause, for instance, that will actually change the world for the better. It is only making up for real harm that one has done, by (say) dumping several tons of carbon in the atmosphere, through taking a flight.
Furthermore, if the money that one spends on carbon offsetting is money that one would otherwise have spent on other worthwhile activities that would reduce one's carbon footprint, for instance, then it may be no good at all. If I can only afford to offset my carbon emissions by reducing the amount that I spend on local organic produce, for instance, then there is no genuine carbon offset effect.
Carbon offsetting can only work at all to neutralise harm if it results in real reductions in carbon emissions, to compensate for the emissions one wants to offset. And those reductions need to be of the same amount as the amounts of carbon one wants to offset, for the thing to be scientifically valid.
The only way that this can be done in a way which will actually make the needed difference in stabilising the climate is if one has a total 'budget' of carbon that one can choose to use in one way or another – and if one chooses to use more in one part of one's life, one must use less elsewhere.
This means that, to be effective, offsetting must be compulsory; and it must be scientifically measured; each measured increase must be compensated for by a measured decrease.
Real carbon offsetting is therefore equivalent to carbon rationing. Each person should have a carbon ration that is worked out in such a way that the total of all the rations adds up to an amount that the climate can cope with. And if more carbon is spent in one place, less must be spent in another.
If we are to avert climate catastrophe, then we will need to recapture something of the spirit of the Blitz. All of us pulling together, even when it involves sacrifices such as those that were involved in food rationing. People grumbled about food rationing during the Second World War sometimes; but by and large it worked, and was adhered to. The long emergency that we are now entering requires similar sacrifices: it requires carbon rationing. But with the difference that this time we will not create a 'black market', but rather will enable those who live a lower-carbon life-style to sell part of their carbon ration to those still making the transition to that lifestyle. This will preserve personal freedom, while allowing us all to pull together in a way that can stop our children from having to wrestle with a disastrously chaotic climate.
Surely it's worth it. And voluntary carbon offsetting just won't get us there. Only compulsory carbon offsetting will do the trick. That is, carbon rationing, which forces one to reduce one's carbon consumption elsewhere in one's life, if one takes a flight, or else to pay a fair price on the 'white market' for the right to use some of someone else's ration.
I believe that the human race is up to the task of preventing climate catastrophe, preventing the climate Blitz that will otherwise overwhelm most of the world outside Antarctica before the 21st century is out. I believe that carbon rationing will be the essential tool in this essential task. Let's revisit the spirit of the Blitz: let's pull together, to save the future.
The One World columnists are sponsoring the Norfolk and Norwich Campaign against Climate Change (N2C3) exhibit in the 'Changing the climate, changing ourselves' exhibition at Norwich Anglican Cathedral from 19 August 16 September 2006. Do visit and see for yourself.