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Carbon Offsetting

Date: 04 December 2007

More and more firms are voluntarily donating cash to CO2-reducing projects to compensate for the amount of carbon dioxide they pump into the air. But which schemes are best, and, with the likes of Greenpeace calling them a last resort, is carbon offsetting even worth pursuing? David Motton investigates

Carbon offsets are big news, and over recent years there's been an explosion of companies promising to cancel out the emissions of individuals and businesses alike. Along with hybrid power and alternatives to the company car, offsets are close to the top of any green fleet's agenda.

It sounds too good to be true. Pay a few pounds for every tonne of carbon emitted and your corporate conscience can be clear. But are the schemes actually doing some good? How can fleet managers be sure a carbon offset company is investing in energy efficient stoves for Sudanese villagers and not an enormous Aga for the MD in Surrey?

Huge growth

The offset industry has grown at an almost exponential rate, and one of the biggest UK companies is Climate Care. In 2006 it sold 148,000 tonnes of CO2 offsets; by the end of this year it's on course to sell 1.5 million tonnes. That's a tenfold increase and equivalent to 0.25% of the UK's annual carbon footprint.

Climate Care is Land Rover's chosen partner for its offset scheme, and tackles both the brand's factory emissions and the predicted CO2 output of its new cars for the first 45,000 miles. "We are making our cars greener and more efficient, but model cycles are lengthy and complex," says Land Rover's manager of corporate affairs, Mark Foster. "We wanted something that made a difference here and now."

How did Land Rover make sure the money is being invested wisely? "We spent six months on due diligence," says Foster, "both financially and in terms delivering the emissions offset."

Even so, a big carbon offset company with big-name clients isn't immune from controversy. In August, The Times published an article disputing the effectiveness of one of Climate Care's projects. Plans to encourage the use of treadle pumps for irrigation on Indian farms are claimed to reduce CO2 by 0.65 tonnes a year. The newspaper pointed to an study suggesting the pumps saved just 0.03 tonnes of carbon annually.

Unsurprisingly, Climate Care defends its figures, which are based on the predicted growth in irrigation using diesel pumps over the next few years. "I can see why not everyone thinks this is reasonable," says Climate Care's manager director, David Wellington. "But it seems wrong to wait until economies have become more reliant on fossil fuels before taking action."