Carbon neutrality: The new black

Carbon neutrality: The new black

By Malcolm Sutton

With Australia's leaders arguing about the merits of an Emissions Trading Scheme and talks of carbon emissions becoming synonymous with irregular weather, the term 'carbon offset' often springs up. Frequently in context as a silver bullet providing atonement for one's dirty laundry, it is a term becoming increasingly prevalent and attractive for marketers of Australian produce.
For those who are not exactly sure what it means, the Australian Macquarie Dictionary (Fifth Edition) explains the term carbon offset as 'a measure which compensates for greenhouse gases produced in some other part of the economy, as by [for example] planting trees to a sufficient quantity to compensate for the gases produced by airline travel'.
In wine circles, perhaps the loudest voice referring to carbon offsets and the carbon neutrality they claim to offer is Taylors Wines of Clare Valley (see the October 2009 issue of Grapegrower & Winemaker).
Late last year the winery launched its Eighty Acres wine range, saying it was the first wine range to possess 100% carbon neutrality in accordance with the International Organization for Standardization lifecycle assessment 14044. This means that Taylors took complicated and exhaustive measures to calculate every puff of greenhouse gas its wine products created - from growing grapes in the vineyard and turning it into wine, to a wine drinker jumping in their car to buy a bottle from the nearest outlet before finally recycling the empty vessel.
The amount of carbon created was then 'offset' through Carbon Neutral (Australia), one of many emerging carbon offset companies that claims to mitigate Taylors and other clients' carbon pollution through emission reduction projects - predominantly the planting of trees for carbon sequestration (storage) or through projects such as landfill reduction and supporting renewable energy initiatives.
Selling carbon reduction packages in 'verified emission reduction units' - a credit paid for by a carbon emitting organisation equivalent to 1 tonne of 'captured' greenhouse gas - such companies have proved to be immensely successful for businesses eager to be seen cleaning up their mess (or at least paying someone else to do it) before enthusiastically splashing their labels with claims of carbon neutrality and environmental consideration.
But for many, the effectiveness of carbon offsetting as being beneficial to a carbon dioxide-heavy atmosphere is questionable, and still others believe it is making the situation worse - false propaganda hindering real action.
Former CSIRO scientist Dr Clive Spash, who says he was censored and later disciplined by the research organisation for speaking out against carbon trading (the model behind the Australian Government's proposed ETS), says the concept is flawed.
In his December 2009 paper The Brave New World of Carbon Trading which examines the concept of carbon trading, both on a large scale such as Australia's proposed ETS and for voluntary carbon offset companies covering emissions not covered in the ETS, Spash says the schemes provide an appearance that action is being taken when in reality they provide a way for society to avoid addressing the problem of increasing emissions.
'The concept of offsets was created under the Kyoto Protocol to refer to emissions reductions not covered by the cap in an ETS,' he said.
'Offsets are based upon projects which are disassociated from the polluting source and either reduce greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere or increase the capacity of a sink (for example, forests and soils) to absorb greenhouse gas pollution beyond 'business as usual'.
'Despite the emission reduction nom de plume [French for pseudonym], these offsets do not require a polluting source to reduce emissions, but instead allow them to increase emissions and then aim to offset them elsewhere.
'They could just as sensibly be called certified 'emission increase' units ... such a process seriously risks further enhancing the greenhouse effect.'
Spash says offsets are questionable for their accuracy in measuring the amount of carbon uptake, particularly in so-called storage 'sinks' such as trees and soils.
'The purely physical carbon accounting aspect of equivalence between source and sink is technically fraught with problems,' he said.
'For example, the amount of added uptake in trees and soils is highly variable on the basis of local environmental conditions, skills of foresters, management practices and enforcement of regulations.'
While trees are known to store carbon, the exact level of carbon they hold is considered variable and its permanency reliant on a stable lifespan; for example, fires, pest infestation and other day-to-day factors could see the trees' health compromised and carbon released.
In the 2007 Carbon Trade Watch organisation paper The Carbon Neutral Myth: Offset Indulgences for your Climatic Sins, the authors make such a point, also arguing that even if a tree's lifespan and protection is assured, the carbon will have to be released eventually when the wood finally decays.
'Trees are part of the active carbon cycle, a continual movement of carbon among plants, organisms, water and the atmosphere,' they write.
'Movement of carbon between the active cycle and the inert pool (fossil fuels) is one way - once carbon is released from the inert pool by burning fossil fuels, it enters the active cycle ... it will not return to the inert pool unless it undergoes the same sort of millennia-long geological process that transformed it into a fossil fuel in the first place.'
Spash questions the validity of many carbon offsetting companies, saying a lack of regulation and moral practice in some instances is causing more damage than good, with companies failing to live up to the promises expected from companies paying to be their clients.
'Offset providers motivated by profit maximisation have the incentive to underfund greenhouse gas emissions abatement,' he said.
'Low-quality offsets will be the most price competitive in a market in which standards are hard to monitor and enforce ... where offset providers are motivated by other goals (for example, biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation), emissions reduction becomes a means to an end rather than the primary motive and may then be treated as such with resulting lack of knowledge, care and attention.'
Spash also points out that those concerned with promoting their self-image as 'green' may also pay little attention to the outcome of their actions, citing popular British band Coldplay which funded carbon offset trees 'that never actually grew'.
In Australia, the Federal Government will enforce a new National Carbon Offset Standard as of July 1.
With the Government's proposed ETS in limbo due to parliamentary blockage, the voluntary carbon market is growing fast (there are now at least 75 companies offering carbon offset schemes in Australia, with forestry followed by renewable energies as the dominant offset methods), leading the government to be concerned over 'what consumers and businesses are really purchasing when they buy carbon offsets'.
'Varied levels of understanding about carbon offsets and carbon neutrality and varied assessment methodologies can create confusion as to the legitimacy of claims and products,' the Government states on the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency website (www.climatechange.gov.au).
Suzanne Dickey from Finalysons, a commercial law firm providing advice on carbon offsetting, says the worldwide voluntary carbon market is 'huge', with millions of dollars being spent to offset C02 emissions.
She says the Government's new standard will benefit carbon conscious consumers, with carbon offset providers having to substantiate their claims through regulations.
But the standard will also provide a guideline for clients who will need to calculate their carbon emissions thoroughly before making any claims of carbon neutrality, and this, Dickey says, is one of the major benefits of voluntary carbon offsetting, even if admitting offsetting alone 'does not reduce a company's carbon emissions'.
'The benefit to the environment from carbon awareness is that in order to calculate how many offsets are required, a company must measure the carbon emissions associated with its operations,' she said.
'This exercise usually reveals a number of ways in which the company can become more energy efficient and less carbon intensive.'
This was certainly the case with Taylors, which, by its own desire to reduce its environmental impact, recruited former technical, engineering and processing consultant Provisor (now integrated into the Wine Industry Cluster) to help it calculate emissions thoroughly.
It was an effort that reinforced Taylors' commitment to lowering the company's impact on the environment, which included initiatives such as constructing a cellar with in-built temperature controls to cover more wine in one area, utilising large flow dynamics with larger diameter pipes, using projectile injection devices instead of water to push fruit through pipes, using inert gas to mix liquids inside 140,000-litre blending tanks instead of pumping, recycling all the winery's water for re-use on the vineyards, supporting local regeneration projects, and packaging the Eighty Acres range in glass bottles that are 40% lighter than regular bottles.
But while few would dispute Taylors' onsite commitments to reducing its environmental impact, it is the claims of carbon neutrality through offsets that attract cynicism, with University of Adelaide Environment Institute Climate Science director Barry Brook describing offset schemes as 'utterly tokenistic'.
'Unless we solve the energy supply problem, all the offsetting in the world won't matter a hill of beans,' he said.
'Besides, there's already too much CO2 in the atmosphere, so we should be aiming at draw-down [through methods such as improved soil carbon management and biochar - using charcoal to draw carbon out of the atmosphere into the soil], not offsetting, if we are serious about the problem.'
But Carbon Neutral (Australia) general manager Angela Tillier is adamant offsets created from actions such as reducing landfill and methane are effective, along with planting and protecting trees to sequester C02 and help protect soil in agricultural areas from salinity and erosion.
'Many scientists support planting trees to sequester C02, and the benefits of tree planting far outweigh any potential problems,' she said.
'It is recognised by scientists that trees are the only cost-effective method we currently have available to remove C02 from the atmosphere now.'
Tillier says that while any organisation is first and foremost responsible for reducing their emissions, such as reducing energy consumption and using fuel-efficient vehicles, grapegrowers may be limited in their facility to plant trees for carbon sequestration, making companies such as Carbon Neutral a useful way to offset their emissions.
'All companies will take the most cost-effective method for them when they are aware of it,' she said.
'Calculating a carbon footprint identifies the emissions intensive stages so the company can focus on ways to reduce that emissions intensity, and cost savings flow from reducing those emissions so it is a win-win.'
Tillier also points out that the marketing prowess of being seen to be reducing greenhouse gas emissions is significant, quoting former Coca-Cola chairman Neville Isdell as saying 'consumers are looking to companies, not government, to solve issues like pollution, climate change, and water and food shortages - supporting sustainability is now crucial for business profitability'.
It is a benefit that is not lost on cynics.
'Carbon offsets are the modern-day indulgences, sold to an increasingly carbon-conscious public to absolve their climate sins,' writes authors of The Carbon Neutral Myth.
'[But] promoting more effective and empowering approaches involves moving away from the marketing gimmicks, celebrity endorsements, technological quick-fixes ... exploitation that the carbon offsets industry embodies.'
For the grape and wine industry, save a few 'regional champions', viticultural consultant Kym Ludvigsen considers the area of carbon offsetting is largely unknown.
'We need to get a better picture of what exactly carbon offsetting is, what carbon sequestration is, what a carbon footprint is,' he said.
'Most would probably think that action in this area is just another cost to business, so we need information on how reducing our carbon footprint can also serve to reduce business costs (or at least be revenue neutral) and improve our operational practises.
'Is it a marketing scheme? These issues can start as market-orientated schemes but who really cares if the end result is a better place for our children and the longer-term sustainability of our farms and vineyards?'
As Dickey concludes, 'Measuring and reducing emissions is the entrée and main; offsetting is the dessert'.
Stand by for a deluge of company logos, labels, and t-shirts claiming carbon neutrality in a market of smoke and mirrors.
Recommendation: grab a modern dictionary and look up the word 'greenwash'.

For more information about carbon neutrality and offsetting, visit www.carbonoffsetguide.com.au/about, www.carbonneutral.com.au, www.climatechange.gov.au/government/initiatives/carbon-offset.aspx, www.carbontradewatch.org/, www.ideas.repec.org/p/pra/mprapa/19114.html and www.bravenewclimate.com/?s=carbon+offsets

[The above article first appeared in Australia & New Zealand Grapegrower & Winemaker, issue 555, April 2010, pages 7-9.]

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