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Another inconvenient truth

Peter Gillson | Published:

I READ with interest the Guernsey Press report about the Environment Committee members’ meeting in Jersey, especially the fact that they flew there.

(Illustration by Elnur/Shutterstock)

I am not going to criticise them – and I do find it disappointing that there was criticism of them for flying to Jersey for a meeting. I know that flying is not the most environmentally friendly mode of transport but we do have to be realistic and accept that there are times when it is needed and is the optimum transport option.

Where I do disagree with them, and it may be the way the story was reported, was the implication that their flights were justified because they put in place measures to offset the carbon from their flights.

The option to fly should be chosen because it is the most effective and practical option in the circumstances, irrespective of whether it is possible to mitigate the carbon through carbon offsetting.

I admit that I am not a fan of carbon offsetting.

Hold on a moment, you may ask; if carbon offsetting mitigates the impact of flying then it must be good, so why not like it? To understand my position, we first need to consider what carbon offsetting is.

To state the obvious, when we fly, the aircraft creates pollution. Offsetting does not reduce this pollution, but puts in place schemes which may reduce the pollution elsewhere, creating a balance. These schemes can fall into one of two categories: forestry projects which increase the number of trees, or stop existing trees being felled, and the second being aimed at generating non-carbon fuel energy.

In order to be truly effective, an offset scheme has to tick two boxes. Firstly, the project has to be dependent upon the offset funding. In other words, it would not be in place without the offset funding. Presumably those trees in Jersey would not have been planted had the deputies not flown to Jersey.

Secondly, it has to be permanent and not reversed. It is no good if the trees are felled a year later, or not tended and they die.

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As you can imagine, there is a great deal of variation between schemes and unfortunately there is no standard form of certification to show which are worthwhile and which are not. This makes choosing a carbon offsetting scheme to support very difficult.

To make this choice easier, many airlines offer the option of making a carbon offsetting contribution when you buy a ticket. Sounds great, nice and simple. Unfortunately, airline schemes also vary a lot.

For instance, the Qantas scheme seems very good, especially now they are trying to incentivise passengers to contribute more to it. At the other end of the spectrum is Ryanair’s scheme, which was described by a University College London report as a ‘green gimmick’ that would offset just 0.01% of the airline’s emissions.

The second reason for my dislike of carbon offsetting is a more moral one. Focusing on carbon offsetting gives the impression that non-environmental actions are OK as long as you do something else to offset them. It appeases people’s consciences about their actions rather than encouraging fundamental change.

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I agree with the environmentalist George Monbiot’s comparison of carbon offsetting with the medieval practice of selling Catholic indulgences, whereby the rich could pay for their sins to be taken away.

The ultimate conclusion from this is that if you are rich you can fly to your heart’s content, as long as you can afford to plant enough trees, whereas if you cannot afford to offset the carbon you should not fly.

I would have been more impressed by the members of Environment if they had other reasons to justify their flights. Perhaps the alternatives would have entailed an overnight stay, or not given long enough time in Jersey for all of the meetings – both of these would be valid reasons for choosing to fly.

Carbon offsetting does have a role to play, it does some good, it may mitigate the effects of flying, but it should not be a justification for flying.

So, what should we do?

Flying less is the simple answer, but not the whole solution.

If we accept there is a climate emergency, then the fundamental problem is that as a whole population we are consuming too much. This is either directly (driving or flying) or indirectly (energy used in manufacturing and transporting goods we buy) using energy and causing the climate problem.

Which brings us to the ‘elephant in the room’: if the issue is of the magnitude that some say, then taking a few fewer flights, planting a few trees and not using plastic bags will not be sufficient action.

To be really effective, the changes to our lifestyles which are needed will result in a reduction in the standard of living for most of us.

We have got to a position where we accept, and indeed expect, a wide choice of relatively inexpensive food and consumer goods, now considered to be normal. Any reduction of which will result in a reduction in our standard of living.

The challenge for the States is to come up with an environmental plan which is more than just lip service, but also acceptable to the public. I do not envy them the challenge.

Finally, this is my last column before Christmas, indeed of 2019, so I take this opportunity to wish you a merry Christmas and a healthy New Year. I hope to return in 2020 with some reviews of the past four years and a look towards our general election.

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