Could carbon-offsetting be making a charitable comeback?

Irish organisation Vita says it can offset emissions in a socially impactful way

Carbon offsetting was big news once upon a time, and indeed seemed to be something of a panacea for all our climate change ills. Buy that V8-engined sports car, or take that round-the-world flight and as long as you buy some carbon credits, and someone, somewhere, promises to plant some trees for you, it’s all fine.

Except, of course, it’s not. The money spent on those carbon credits often gets eaten away by an army of credit-selling middle men, leaving little left over for tree-planting at the far end of the chain. On top of which, it’s not exactly encouraging anyone to actually reduce their carbon footprint overall. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Vita, an Irish-based non-profit organisation, seems to have a potential solution to the carbon credit conundrum, however. The answer, it seems, is not so much to plant trees but to stop them being cut down in the first place.

Vita started life 30 years ago as Refugee Trust International. "We were dealing with people who were moving across Africa and the main reason then was an economic one, but now it's environmental. There are no livelihoods anymore and that's an environmental result of climate change," says Holly Hughes, Vita's fundraising and communications officer.

“So we thought: what if we could get to the root of the issue, and instead of providing for people’s direct needs when they’ve already become refugees, in times of urgency, if we could pre-empt that and stop them having to move in the first place. And then, beyond that, go further than the traditional aid model and start introducing trade structures that can help to build thriving economies.”

Better stove

The solution? Stoves. Or more accurately, a better stove. “The traditional stove in Africa is quite inefficient, and requires a lot of fuel, mostly wood. So that obviously has a very tangible environmental effect, not only the release of carbon into the atmosphere, but also the deforestation aspect. The social impact is just as big, though. So the woman who’s working that stove – and in general it will always be a woman – has to spend maybe 20 hours a week going out and collecting that firewood, or having to pay for firewood with money that she quite frankly can’t really afford,” says Hughes.

“We go in and work with communities to find more fuel-efficient ways of cooking. So we have these stoves, which are designed to be specific to a country or a community for what they need, and they use 60 per cent less wood for the same amount of cooking. So that’s 60 per cent fewer trees coming down, and 60 per cent more carbon saved.

“And this is, of course, where the carbon offset model comes in. For every tonne of carbon that is not being burned, that’s a credit that we can sell, both to businesses and individuals. Last week we launched our carbon calculator, which is live on our website, so that people can measure their carbon footprint, and also if they wish to offset it with us. It’s Ireland’s only calculator of this kind.”

Hughes acknowledges the previous bad press surrounding carbon credits, and the accusations of ‘greenwashing’ that came with them. “So there’s been lots of talk about carbon offsetting in the past, and it’s kind of known for the ‘greenwashing’ effect, but the difference here is the social impact model. We’re not working in the compliance sphere, we’re selling to the voluntary market. So the big polluters can buy their credits from a broker, and it’s cheap and easy, it’s a case of just planting trees somewhere. Which is fine, but it’s not actually helping people on the ground,” she says.

“So in a way it’s saying: ‘We’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing, and not actually think about how we can make our business more sustainable. So our whole ethos is to measure, reduce and offset. The whole point of the calculator is that you can estimate your emissions for 2018, and offset those, and then by the time 2019 rolls around you have hopefully found ways to reduce your emissions and so you’ll pay less to offset this time next year. It’s a really equitable way of achieving social and environmental impact at the same time.

“What I seem to encounter most of the time now is a lot of chatter that says ‘recycling isn’t good enough anymore’ or something else isn’t good enough anymore, or I’m doing something wrong, but I still need to get from A to B, and that’s not going to change any time soon. If it’s in an electric vehicle, that’s still going to have a carbon footprint, so this is a tangible way to offset it, which has long-lasting ramifications for the people who are experiencing the worst effects of climate change. We’re getting heatwaves, whereas in Africa lives and livelihoods are being threatened.”

Social impact

Ciara Feehely, Vita's head of communications and fundraising, chimes in with a helpful summation. Old-style carbon credits, she says, were: "A mitigation measure but it has absolutely no social impact. I could be any old eejit coming in off the street and saying 'I have a carbon credit for you' and I suppose after the Kyoto protocols the whole carbon industry and emissions-trading system was born, and it became kind of discredited pretty quickly. There were a lot of what you might call carbon cowboys around at that time.

"So the industry had to reinvent and rebuild itself. The compliance side, the corporate side, is very heavily regulated now, and so too is the voluntary side that we work in. So our stoves are registered and certified by a UN-affiliated company based in Switzerland called the Gold Standard, and they really are the gold standard for this side of the voluntary industry."

Vita developed its model in 2015, and then spent several years raising €2 million to put it into action, describing it as a model of “climate justice”.

It’s not just about stoves, either. Water plays a huge role in carbon emissions. “Each water well is worth about 1,000 carbon credits a year,” says Feehely. “Water-borne disease is a huge issue in Africa, and if you only have access to dirty water, you have to either boil it to sanitise – using up yet more wood and releasing more carbon – or you have to walk to fetch clean water.

"About 47 per cent of water wells in Africa are broken, the pumping mechanisms are broken. When NGOs like ourselves came along in the Seventies and Eighties, they sunk plenty of wells and put in the pumps, but then moved on. There was no sustainable model for what happens when it breaks, or who's qualified to fix it, or even who has ownership of the well and can look after it, or where will we get the part we need, and how will we pay for it? So there's this incredible wasted resource of broken water wells. So in Eritrea, around half the water wells in the country were broken, and I think we're about halfway to fixing them all now. Each well would sustain about 500 families, so when you fix that you're saving a huge amount of time, and it's around nine to 10 times cheaper than sinking a new well."

So how much is it going to cost you to offset your motoring costs for a year? Well, according to Vita’s online calculator, the general number of tonnes of carbon emitted for driving 20,000km a year is just over four tonnes for a diesel-engined family car. At €5.50 per tonne carbon credit, you’re looking in the region of €24 to offset your emissions. For those driving petrol-engined cars, that climbs quite a bit, to €55 or so for a year’s motoring.

Of course, the intention isn’t to simply offset and forget. The idea is to start monitoring your carbon footprint, offsetting as much as possible on your way to reduced – eventually zero, one hopes – emissions. Given the high costs of electric cars, certainly for the moment, spending €55 a year to offset your existing emissions, and give direct aid to families, and especially women, in sub-Saharan Africa, seems to be a good way to get started while we wait for the battery revolution to truly emerge.

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