Do carbon offsets make a difference or just assuage our guilt?
"Congratulations, Bruce Carscadden! Your flight is carbon neutral!"
Yay! Now that’s an attention-grabbing email!
Yes, carbon credit provider zerofootprint really wants us to feel good about purchasing offsets for our flight. The email really looks like this!
There’s a lot more to creating a green office than just focusing on the building and all the paper. Travel is a big part of running a successful business, and it can be a huge polluter. Since our practice focuses on recreation and community projects, and our projects are dotted all around the province, lots of travel is necessary.
Lightening our travel footprint
We have ways of reducing our need to travel for projects, like using conference software like GoToMeeting. And sometimes we drive, which is a little lighter on those emissions, but only a little. Some weeks, though, when Bruce needs to be in Penticton on Monday, Smithers on Thursday and Nanaimo on Friday (yes, it happens), flying really is the only option.
Many of our projects now aim for LEED certification, including our current work at the Penticton Aquatic Centre, but the sustainability of a project extends beyond the LEED checklist. When we are flying multiple team members to Penticton or other areas on a regular basis, it is a bit of a blemish on the environmental record of the project and the firm.
That’s where this flashy orange email comes in. Through Air Canada and zerofootprint, we’re purchasing carbon credits for our work flights and encouraging our team members to do the same. The credits don’t reduce the initial impact of flying, but they do “offset” it, in this case funding a large reforestation project in Maple Ridge.
It’s passive sustainability, but the practice does have a “better than nothing” quality—and does a lot to assuage our flying emissions-related guilt. But what of the projects our dollars are funding? After all, that’s the sustainable part of this.
Not all carbon offset programs are created equal
Alas, it seems that not all carbon offset programs are created equal, and reforestation programs like zerofootprint’s do not rate highly among other projects. The David Suzuki Foundation finds these reforestation projects problematic for a variety of reasons and suggests choosing offset companies that fund renewable energy projects, for example. The article quickly made me rethink using zerofootprint, but I can’t say I like the suggestion of entirely avoiding companies that focus on tree-planting projects.
Obviously no one likes being told that their good deed for the day isn’t so good. “YAY, TREES” turned into “Oh, damn. There’s that guilt again” pretty quickly while reading the Suzuki article. Way to harsh my buzz, Dave.
Is planting trees 'greenwashing'?
I understand where the Suzuki Foundation is coming from. We can’t work towards a sustainable future without changing attitudes and perceptions, including altering our view of what is really “sustainable.”
As the notion of sustainability has increased in popularity and the science behind it has improved, greenwashing is a major concern, and things once thought to be green or natural may turn out not to be. If reforestation is as counterproductive as the Suzuki Foundation suggests, then it is important for carbon credit companies to move away from the practice and for customers to motivate that move with their dollars.
But planting trees is also classic, tangible environmentalism that shouldn’t be discounted or discontinued entirely. We need trees, and knowing that our money is going to reforesting Maple Ridge feels good. While this “feel good” attitude is probably one that needs changing based on the research, it is also an important part of making programs like carbon offsets marketable and viable.
So while I’ll look into companies with more diverse projects to purchase offsets from, we’ll also continue to purchase zerofootprint’s carbon offsets. Reforestation may not be perfect, but neither are we.
And we like trees.