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Carbon offsetting - easy solution or part of the problem?

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Research at the end of last year found that 95% of fleet managers rate the environment as their top priority.

That’s a lot of fleets keen to be green, but as environmentalism is a relatively new and rapidly growing area of concern, there are a raft of services offered by suppliers anxious to be a part of the solution.

One of the most controversial methods is carbon offsetting.

Carbon offsetting sees fleets take action to counteract the effects of emissions from their operations – the most popular method is to plant the number of trees that corresponds to the level of emissions.

But there are concerns that fleets and organisations are using this method instead of tackling their core operations.

“A lot of people don’t understand the full implications,” says Julie Jenner, chairman of fleet operators’ association ACFO.

“I’m aware of companies that just throw money at carbon offset schemes to assuage their guilt without actually taking steps to reducing core emissions.

"They will argue that even though they are not operating policies that encourage lower CO2 emissions, they are planting X number of trees.

But you would have to plant trees in their millions to make any difference.”

Greg Taylor, commercial director at ING Car Lease, says: “While any attempt to address this most important issue should be welcomed, fleet operators who are serious about the environment should be wary of conscience-easing schemes such as offsetting which, while bringing much-needed support to environmental projects overseas, detracts from the real job of carbon reduction on our own doorstep.

“Rather than handing over responsibility elsewhere, fleet operators – and their suppliers – should instead focus on ways to reduce their carbon footprint first, and offset what they really can’t avoid after that.

"After all, once you’ve released CO2 into the atmosphere, there’s nothing offsetting can actually do to reduce its impact.”

Environmental organisations agree.

“We don’t see offsetting as being the solution and in many ways it can be a diversion,” says Tony Bosworth, senior transport campaigner for Friends of the Earth.

“The priority has got to be encouraging people to change their behaviour.

"Offsetting can lead people to think that they don’t have to do any more, but it should be what you do after you’ve done everything you can to cut emissions in other ways, such as cutting the amount of travel, changing to more fuel-efficient cars and thinking about how you travel.”

Greg Taylor says there are plenty of things that fleet operators and suppliers can do to tackle carbon reduction.

“Motivating drivers to choose more environmentally-friendly vehicles and teaching economical driving techniques is a good way to demonstrate that everyone is expected to take some responsibility,” he says.

“Increasing opportunities for home- working and tele-conferencing can make a significant dent in a company’s overall mileage, as well as car sharing schemes and improved logistics management.

Regular maintenance and servicing ensures vehicles are running at maximum efficiency.”

The real trick, Mr Taylor continues, is to save money by developing a sustainable strategy for immediate and long-term carbon reduction by looking at ways to reduce mileage and increase economy.

“Any savings generated by such a strategy will certainly grow over time, as financial penalties on carbon emissions are sure to increase.”

Once you have done all you can to reduce core emissions, then you can start to think about offsetting the remainder.

But remember, there are still hazards. Not all schemes are the same.

A 2007 investigation by the Financial Times uncovered widespread failings among some companies offering offsetting services, with some organisations paying for reductions that never took place.

And the environment adviser for HSBC bank, which went carbon neutral in 2005, said the worldwide offsetting industry suffered from “serious credibility concerns”.

Nevertheless, MPs in the UK broadly support the idea.

The environmental audit committee last summer encouraged people to support and use offset schemes.

While acknowledging that some schemes were “less than robust”, they felt the benefits were worth pursuing.

“People need to make sure that they are putting their money into a scheme that’s really going to work. There are big differences between schemes and people should do research before they commit,” Tony Bosworth says.

In an effort to bring the various schemes into line, the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is working on a code of practice.

Due to be launched this month, the code will set robust standards for the industry and aims to improve accuracy and transparency in pricing.

Hugh Jones, solutions project director at the Carbon Trust, sums up: “Good quality offsetting should only be explored once all means to improve energy efficiency and reduce emissions have been exhausted and companies have reduced emissions from their supply chain to deliver low carbon products and services.

“This approach delivers a double bottom-line benefit of reducing energy costs and avoiding the costs incurred through offsetting, not to mention doing the right thing for the environment.”

Carbon offset schemes


Sue Yelland, founder and creative director of the CarbonNeutral Company, gives her top tips on ensuring the carbon offset scheme you choose is the right one.

“More than 25% of a company’s carbon footprint can be down to travel.

"Managing those emissions down makes sense.
“Carbon offsetting costs money.

"No-one likes spending money unnecessarily.

"We work with clients to help them calculate their carbon footprint – from a whole operation, or from part of it. We then discuss targets for reductions, and how they might achieve those reductions.

“The first 20% is often easily achievable – advice for fleet managers would include shifting the profile of the car fleet; swapping air for rail for domestic travel; encouraging car sharing; journey planning; and using more technology to cut down on travelling long distances.

“It may prove cost prohibitive to achieve further internal reductions in the short term.

"But it is possible to meet more significant targets through external reductions such as carbon offsetting.”

The CarbonNeutral programme is a four-step approach.

Step One: Measure

Measure the energy used in travel to understand where the bulk of your impacts are coming from.

Step Two: Reduce

Set targets to reduce your carbon emissions at source.

You could save 1kg of CO2 per day by walking or cycling to work instead of taking the car.

Driving for 65 miles with your tyres at the correct pressure could also save 1kg of CO2.
You could consider changing the profile of your vehicle fleet and use video-conferencing facilities where you don’t need face-to-face meetings.

Step Three: Reduce emissions through carbon offset

To help meet targets or achieve net zero CO2, you can pay organisations like the Carbon-Neutral Company to neutralise unavoidable CO2 emissions through offsetting.

A verified project is one which uses money to put into projects that will save CO2, such as replacing carbon intensive kerosene in India with solar power.

Step Four: Communicate
Companies that have reduced their CO2 to net zero through one of our programmes can use the CarbonNeutral logo.


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