Down with carbon colonialism

Did you know that the money you donate to carbon-offsetting schemes is often spent on programmes that stifle development in the Third World?

Austin Williams

Topics Politics

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‘When you drink one, Africa drinks one too.’ So says the Onederful advertisement on hoardings around London, promoting a new soft drink for the caring executive classes. ‘All profits’, it boasts, ‘go to build unique roundabout water pumps’. While you quench your thirst after a workout in the gym, children in Africa are getting a workout in order that they can have a drink.

These water pumps, celebrated in Cameron Sinclair’s latest book Design Like You Give A Damn, are designed to look like a children’s roundabout. Ingeniously, each playful rotation raises water from a well, and so youngsters can now do something socially responsible instead of just playing selfishly for themselves.

But regardless of the paternalistic pretension of this scheme (this roundabout is nothing other than a hand pump), and its deception (this is child labour dressed up as doing children a favour), this is a way of acclimatising the Third World to their own lack of development and infrastructure. Children in developing countries want iPods like anyone else, but schemes such as this alter the existing situation just enough that their poverty doesn’t look so bad to the Western eye.

Back in the Eighties, Bob Geldof’s Live Aid threw down a conscious challenge to the public to ‘Give us your fucking money’. Not very diplomatic and more than a little contemptuous; but at least he was prepared to engage us and try to earn our money. More recently, charities and campaigns have been searching for more novel, reflexive or unconscious ways to be charitable. Tapping into Western consumer culture is the latest hassle-free method of charitable giving. This is charity without the inconvenience of inconvenience, without the annoyance of having to convince someone of the merits of the case. While this avoids the hassle of engaging in why the organisation’s work is important, it also circumvents the possibility of more active engagement.

This model was best exemplified by Bono’s RED designer Motorola mobile phone. Buying a phone anyway? Why not buy this trendy one for a little bit more and the proceeds will let a black baby live for another day or two. No skin off your nose (see Why the new Amex card makes me see RED, by Daniel Ben-Ami).

Subverting the everyday into a political act still needs some kind of acknowledgement – hence the need for some recognisable object that indicates what has been done: a wristband, a phone, or a credit card. ‘Brand Aid’ provides a way to contribute without interrupting your daily life, while those in the know will be aware that you’ve done your bit.

Climate change: a feelgood crisis

The latest stage in this creeping process of unwitting charitable activity makes Bono’s sanctimoniousness sound positively engaging. As Africa has slipped down the political agenda, climate change has moved centre stage as the ultimate feelgood crisis. This is a moral dilemma with no argument needed; there is general agreement, it seems, that global warming is potentially devastating and that ‘something has to be done’.

A quarter of a century ago, Geldof saw people as part of the solution – his beef at the time was with intransigent politicians. Today, aid agencies, especially those working on environmental projects, frequently see people as the problem. The more consumer-driven, modern or economically advanced we become, the more we are deemed to be harming the future of the planet. The consequences of seeing ordinary actions and lifestyles as inherently detrimental to the planet are paradoxical, reinforcing both a sense of self-loathing as well as a moral piety. The Guardian offers some assistance in that ‘if you really can’t, or don’t want to, change your lifestyle to reduce the damage you do to the planet, you could consider doing something to offset it’ (1).

Eco-aid giving has now been turned into a contemporary form of absolution, saving you from the guilt of the modern world, best exemplified by ‘carbon offsets’. Whatever you do, from driving a car to taking a holiday to boiling a kettle of water, gives rise to carbon emissions. Having fewer cups of tea is one way of reducing your ‘carbon footprint’ (the amount of carbon that you produce through your actions) and is seen as a positive objective. Having a zero-emissions (or even a positive feedback) effect is even better. Planting a tree, for example, will help produce oxygen and remove some CO2 from the atmosphere. Powering your home from your own wind turbine or solar cells can mean that surplus power can be fed back into the system resulting in a net positive carbon impact.

Ironically, these environmental organisations assume that we are so wrapped up in Western consumer culture that change has to be engineered through the subversion of that very consumer culture. Thus, environmental groups are now using consumerism – the traditional object of their ire – as a way of legitimating their programme of activities without the consumer necessarily knowing about it. This cynical approach to funders – or donors as they used to be called – is surely a new low in the long history of environmental contempt for consumers.

The real irony, of course, is that most of these campaigning organisations are large businesses themselves. ClimateCare, for example, ‘was the idea of eco-entrepreneur Mike Mason’. Brian Wilson, who was energy minister in Blair’s government until 2003, recently became the chairman of the UK operations board of Airtricity, the Irish-based renewable energy company constructing windfarms all over Ireland and beyond. Both Land Rover and British Gas have bought into ClimateCare’s programme of offsets.

The non-executive board members of CarbonNeutral comprise a venture capitalist, an investment banker and an ex-manager at Shell. These examples show that big business is content to do business with environmentalists – and why not? After all, these environmental companies are proper moneymaking concerns that are gratefully receiving your donations.

For some eco-businesses, instead of developing a profitable business plan to encourage shareholder investment (with the attendant awkwardness of accountability), or to manufacture and sell useful products to raise capital, they prefer to use donations to prop up their organisations. Others prefer to provide their more discerning clientele with a carbon-free environmental service as an added-value treat. Still others are diverting resources into lo-tech (carbon-free) technologies as a way of capturing a new market share. Carbon neutrality is, for all businesses, simply an exercise in corporate social responsibility.

Passive giving

So combining the worst elements of all the previous trends with a few new ones, environmental campaigners are now asking people to ‘donate’ in the most passive way possible. Students at Linacre College, Oxford may not realise that Thabit Al-Murani, their student environmental representative, has pledged around £1,250 of their funds to ClimateCare to make the college the first carbon neutral college in Oxbridge (2).

The Carbon Footprint agency (motto: ‘It doesn’t cost the Earth to save the planet’) has done a number of deals with third parties to make saving the planet as painless as possible. For example, you can join WeightWatchers and Carbon Footprint will offset 1500kg of CO2; or 2500kg when you subscribe to dating agency. What does this mean? Well, in simple terms, will give a sum of money, via Carbon Footprint, to a carbon neutral campaigning group to do good works. The financial sum has been assessed as the cost of whatever is needed to absorb an equivalent amount of carbon that has been emitted as part of your everyday activities. In the past it might have been called a discount, whereas now it is disguised as an ethical trade-off.

The World Land Trust (WLT) is offering to offset 140kg of your despicable carbon usage if you simply send them a text message. What could this mean? Well, simply that the text nets WLT £1.50 (after network charges have been deducted) and they will plant a tree to the equivalent amount (about a twigful). Call me cynical, but the WLT is a conservation organisation whose very raison d’etre is to plant trees around the world, so it all seems like a canny way to get more cash and a higher profile. And while they boast that ‘you can sleep soundly, safe in the knowledge that we have taken care of [your emissions] for you’, it offers texters the chance to win ‘free carbon neutral flights to Tenerife’ (4). Climate Relief, on the other hand, will send an unsuspecting friend a £20 gift voucher worth 100kg emissions. Ideal for the man who has everything.

The Observer claims that if you’ve done 120 school runs in a 4×4, then £1.50 should be enough to clear your conscience and if you buy your 4×4 from then they’ll offset 3 tonnes of carbon (5). (Before you get too excited, this salesman patter simply nets the equivalent of a £30 discount.)

If you are planning on holding an event to explain all this, the WLT (not to be confused with the Woodland Trust) asks for a ‘contribution of £1,000 or above [to] offset the CO2 travel and venue emissions [sic] from a business conference or training event.’ But for the really guilty, they suggest that ‘an investment of £20,000 or above can offset at least 800 tonnes of carbon dioxide (close to the annual heating and lighting-related emissions of 140 households)’ (6). Presumably, then, this is what used to be called a ‘subsidy’ to shore up a company, but now it is an ‘investment’ in the future of the planet. And it can be done from your home with the minimum of fuss or involvement.

It is reputed that each tree planted by one of these company’s offsets about 730kg CO2 over its lifetime, whereas each person actually uses/ creates about 7,000kg per year (500 tonnes a lifetime). So model citizens should plant 10 trees per year for the rest of their lives. As it happens, temperate forests in developing countries such as the US, UK and Canada have actually been expanding over the past 40 years, so things aren’t as black as they’re painted, even in the terms of the debate. However, let not the facts get in the way of an ecological bandwagon.

You don’t even have to be a charity or eco-company to do it. BP has launched a new non-profit initiative called TargetNeutral to counter the fact that ‘a typical motorist will generate around four tonnes of CO2 over 10,000 miles, which would cost £20 to offset’. Simply pull up at a service station, fill up and if you are using one of their loyalty cards, you can automatically pay the sum to TargetNeutral and BP will match it. You haven’t got to do a thing; it’s automatic. If you’re not yet convinced, rest assured that Jonathan Porritt, chair of the UK Sustainable Development Forum will be part of ‘an independent panel’ to oversee its actions. Mind you, BP isn’t totally convinced, asking: ‘Is BP genuine in trying to tackle the problem of global warming, or is it simply a PR stunt that jumps on the green bandwagon? We’d like to hear from you.’ If you buy into BP’s selfless motives, your money goes to fund wind turbine projects in India and Mexico that BP are committed to building anyway. But any extra cash wouldn’t go amiss.

Carbon colonialism

Carbon trading is everywhere, from estate agents to gifts, from insurance products to pension schemes. Take the figures with a pinch of salt though, because they are, effectively, made up. Lots of websites have set up basic software programmes to allow you to assess your impact on the planet, but there seems to be little consistency. CO2Balance also say that £9-worth of CO2 emissions (0.16 tonnes) are caused by travelling 600 miles in a 1.4L petrol-engine car, whereas ClimateCare says that the same car journey racks up 0.18 tonnes of CO2, costing £1.35. Then again, Carbon Footprint assess it as 0.149 tonnes, which can be offset ‘by planting 0 trees’. The Scotsman suggests that driving 12,000 miles in a family saloon releases 3.6 tonnes and costs just £20, whereas Newcastle Council states that one tonne of CO2 offset costs £13.65. So it seems that if you shop around, you can get some good deals… but maybe that’ll just make you feel even more guilty.

Obviously, the basis of carbon trading schemes is that they can’t offset carbon produced in the West, say, by investing in a technology that produces carbon emissions in the offset country. That would be ‘irresponsible’. Therefore all of these agencies that have sprung up over the past five or so years are engaged in low- or alternative-technology projects in the under-developed world.

ClimateCare, for instance, invests in low or zero-carbon emissions projects in Kazakhstan, among other places. Here, the silly Kazakhstanis use ‘traditional incandescent lights in buildings’ but by donating to ClimateCare, you are investing in a project called ‘Education for Sustainability and Climate Change in Central Asia’ which delivers ‘workshops to 98 schools to teach children about climate change… supported by posters, CDs and a teachers’ handbook.’ (7) The project partners are ‘developing a monitoring and verification plan’, implying that if the scheme doesn’t meet target objectives then something’ll have to give. Oh, and they can forget about real development using more carbon intensive and effective technology.

ClimateCare also funds projects in India, where it is encouraging villagers to stop using forest wood for fuel so that the indigenous tiger’s habitat is preserved; or it employs 400 people in Uganda to clear grassland to plant trees to satisfy the needs of the indigenous primate population. Did you know that you were funding a scheme that promotes wildlife over people – even wildlife that eats people? And what’s that got to do with climate change? Given that the carbon offset scheme is premised on the fact that human activity is endangering nature, I suppose that it is a small and logical step to put animals before people.

There are many such examples. United by the allusion to the nobility of the indigenous tribespeople, or the overseeing and monitoring of their performance in the carbon-offset programmes, these initiatives seem faintly colonial.

In Mayer Hillman’s book, How We Can Save The Planet, he argues that giving carbon credits on an equal individual basis across the globe would be a win-win situation for everyone. While we in the West, he argued, may not be so keen to give up our living standards, what does a person in the Third World want with all those carbon credits? After all, they have no car, phone or significant travel plans. This leaves them ‘free’ to sell the credits off to salvage the conscience of the West. Unfortunately, the consequential maintenance of underdevelopment is the real truth behind carbon offset schemes, and one that, unsurprisingly, the marketing managers don’t really want you to know about.

Carbon offsets are premised on the notion that modern lifestyles are inherently damaging to the planet: that you are part of the problem. If you agree, then the answer is simple: reduce your consumption, only travel locally (using muscle power), campaign against housebuilding and give generously to the Third World for schemes that treat the environment as sacrosanct. However, bear in mind that even the water-pump roundabout in Africa, paid for by the profits of a bottled water company in the West, can’t really be argued to be zero carbon. After all, the collective CO2 exhalation of malnourished children forced to push a massive playground roundabout in order to extract water is bound to contribute in some small way to the melting of the polar icecaps.

If, however, you think that the under-developed world needs development, then the CO2 equation has to be put on the back burner. The chief priority is to encourage the liberation of millions of people from grinding poverty, not to make them guilty about wanting the material standards that the West has.

Once the under-developed world starts developing, we will encourage an enlightened view of humanity. Similarly, a more enlightened view of humanity can kickstart that development. Meeting this dialectical challenge requires a human-centred, rather than an eco-centric, view of the world. Once we reclaim this agenda for humanity, only then might there be scope for setting a positive agenda for change to deal with environmental factors. At the moment, sanctifying the environment, combined with an anti-humanist guilt, keeps half the world in penury while the other half ponders their purchasing decisions.

Unfortunately, consumer choices and carbon offsets are designed to maintain the iniquitous status quo, and make you feel good about it.

Austin Williams is director of the Future Cities Project, and producer of the Battle for Nature strand at the Battle of Ideas festival taking place in London in October 2006.

(1) Green with energy, Guardian, 21 August 2006
(2) First Oxbridge college to go ‘climate neutral’, Linacre College press release
(3) Health Fitness and Dieting and Dating, Carbon Footprint
(4) Carbon Balanced
(5) Offset your carbon emissions with a text, Observer, 27 August 2006
(6) Can your employer go CarbonPlus?, World Land Trust
(7) Lighting up education in Kazakhstan, ClimateCare

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Topics Politics


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