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Carbon Emission: A critical Evaluation of the Carbon Neutrality Concept
Carbon emission is a global threat and there is a global challenge to find ways to reduce the level of carbon emitted as a result of anthropological activities. Carbon neutrality has been proposed at different discussions and forums as a panacea for carbon emission and climate change. Although Carbon Neutrality has been faced with different kinds of opposition about its concept and it’s sustainability, there is a need to not just discuss and emphasis on the pains but also evaluate what gains we have in the offset concept as a present remedy towards finding a ‘permanent‘ solution to the issue of climate change.
The quest for development and growth has significantly gone a long away in affecting both human and non-human world (environment); human activities for survival requires the use of energy (fossil fuel burning, deforestation etc.) resulting in the emission of Greenhouse Gases (GHG) which is getting the earth warmer (Environmental Defence Fund, 2012). The natural cycle of nature such that it balances itself with the air and water acting as sinks for gas emission, however, human activity-led emission of GHG has driven the cycle off the natural control of nature’s cycle (Committee on Climate Change, 2012) leading to global warming noticeable from around 1750 (The Industrial Era) before which no evident negative change has been noticed in the environment and climate. The global warming effect can be seen all around us now, ranging from extreme weather conditions to effects on crops and the melting of the Antarctica ice shelf, (UK 8020, 2012). Greenhouse Gas (chief of which is Carbon dioxide) emission, climate change, and its attending effects has undoubtedly attracted many concerns from government, private, media and even climate advocates to say the least on how to mitigate the effects and save our world, bringing up the ways to reduce emission and achieve sustainability, leaving a better world for coming generation. Carbon Neutrality is one of such ways advocated as a means of cutting down on the world’s GHG emission (mostly carbon). The world at large faces a potential bleak future if efforts are not made to reduce the level of carbon emitted as a result of human actions as there would be extreme weather conditions, water shortages, sea level rising, flooding and with potential human population increase over the coming years, there would be more pressure on the existing infrastructures, economic stress which could lead to a catastrophic financial stress including social consequences too; its, therefore, estimated that a cut of about 80% would have to be met in GHG emission by 2050 so as to avoid the worst climate change impact (based on recent calculations by IPPC), while proposed solution to these great world issue appears costly, inaction remains more costly hence a need to start something now (The Carbon Neutral Company, 2012).
Carbon n Neutrality, a term used to explain actions taken by organizations and individuals to achieve a zero-carbon footprint, a stage whereby the amount of carbon dioxide put into the atmosphere by the organizations and individuals (businesses inclusive) equals the amount of CO2 removed through their corporate actions such as planting of trees around the world-building of wind farms in some selected country regions etc. following a process of calculating emission, internally reducing those emissions and externally offsetting residual emission (making the net carbon emission equals zero) (Department of Energy and Climate Change, 2012). With the idea of making funds available to set-up projects that aid the reduction of GHG and also impose a cost on those producing the GHG, carbon offsets also face the problem of its sustainability doubt (Sharon, 2007). There are however growing concerns of carbon neutrality’s lack of uniform basis for making a statement of Carbon by companies and organizations, as it is based more on hosts of assumptions that do not stand scrutiny and its open to greenwash accusations (DECC,2012).
WHAT IS CARBON NEUTRALITY
Reducing carbon emission is a priority amongst many nations most especially developed nations and organizations, research has shown that to save the world from impending danger, we need to cut down our emission by 80% by 2050 hence the need to devise means (technological, behavioural etc.) to achieve this. With the campaigns for sustainable development, cutting down on fossil fuel use, afforestation etc. there’s still need for Individuals to achieve survival, organizations to grow, Nations needs to develop which could invariably result into carbon emission and there’s, therefore, need to come up with other measures to balance this contacting forces i.e. development and carbon emission (development that doesn’t compromise carbon reduction) (carbon neutral, 2012). According to DECC, (2012) to be carbon neutral means that through a process of calculating emission, reducing those emissions and offsetting residual emissions, net carbon emission equals zero. Carbon Neutrality is a concept that describes a process whereby GHG emissions produced by one or in one place are taken off or offset by emission reduction by another or another place (Carbon Clear, 2011). Climate change as a result of emission from human activities is the greatest challenge facing the world today, world leaders and decision-makers have set targets for emissions ranging from amongst Nations to individuals and business organizations; it’s within this context that carbon neutrality has become a household name in recent times (DECC, 2009). Greenhouse gas (measured in CO2e) is released into the atmosphere from sources called emissions and is removed from the atmosphere through sinks (plants, water bodies), there’s, therefore, need to maintain a balance between the two to achieve neutrality (Murray et al, 2008). However, carbon neutrality has no definite definition and lacks transparency, addressing these would increase its potential effectiveness and ensure a level playing ground as many organizations choose what/how they define carbon neutrality (DECC, 2009). True corporate carbon neutrality simply means there’s no net increase of atmospheric GHG from a clearly defined source that accounts for impacts on the climate (Clean air-cool Planet and Forum for the future, 2008). A system whereby net carbon produced or emitted by a process, an individual or an organization is balanced exactly by the amount of carbon removed from a third party (through legal means) by that same process or individual, (carbon, 2012). To be considered carbon-neutral, process or an organization must make sure its carbon footprint reduction is zero; carbon footprint simply means the level of environmental impact of an organization or process measured in carbon dioxide, composed of primary (sum of the direct CO2 emission from fossil fuel burning, domestic energy consumption, transportation) and secondary (indirect emission associated with manufacture, food individuals consume and product breakdown) (TechTarget, 2012).
The concept of neutrality appeals to organizations and businesses because:
(a) It helps to create sensibility to environmental issues in employees
(b) It helps to identify and minimize carbon impacts, thereby demonstrating a commitment to tackle climate change.
(c) It helps to promote products and services.
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Importance of Carbon neutrality to business, Source: Carbon clear, (2011)
STAGES TO ACHIEVING CARBON NEUTRALITY
Many companies have advertising campaigns stating that they have become or are in the process of being carbon neutral. However, achieving carbon neutrality entails knowing your Carbon emission through calculating it, reducing your calculated emission where possible and offsetting that which remains after reduction through purchasing of carbon credit e.g. through tree planting or establishment of renewable energy projects in places or regions that have less carbon emission. There are three stages involved in Carbon neutrality and offsetting.
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Source: Department of Energy and Climate change, (September 2009)
(1) CALCULATING EMISSION: this first stage entails defining a project boundary and measuring the carbon footprint within the boundary over a certain period of time (Murray et al, 2008) as you cannot manage what you cannot measure. It requires the determination of what kind of emissions will be measured and once the boundary has been set, the emission is calculated by collecting activity data such as the amount of electricity and gas consumed (DECC, 2009).
(2) EMISSION REDUCTION (INTERNAL): emission could be direct or indirect; direct emission from on-site production or direct combustion of fossil fuel by an organization (e.g. Vehicle and production) or indirect emission such as electricity consumption, water use and travels (Elizabeth, 2008). The second stage in achieving neutrality involves assessing what kind of emission can be reduced from within the organization through efficient measures e.g. energy efficiency (DECC, 2009).
(3) OFFSETTING RESIDUAL EMISSION (EXTERNAL EMISSION REDUCTION): this third stage entails the buying of carbon credits to offset any residual or remaining emission after measuring and internally reducing emission (DECC, 2009). This external reduction or buying of carbon credit is referred to as offset meaning taking responsibility for an organization remaining emission and mitigating these by investing in projects that don’t give offs /absorbs carbon (GHG) from the atmosphere. There are three types of offset projects viz:
a. Renewable energy projects (e.g. wind, solar, biomass, hydro and geothermal) that replaces burning of fossil fuels.
b. Afforestation to increase the capacity of the ecosystem to sunk up carbon.
c. Energy-efficient projects that reduces demands on energy (Elizabeth, 2008).
To substantiate and make plain a carbon neutrality claim, it should always be linked to a particular and specified time period; this will also ensure efficient review and update of the carbon-neutral efforts (DECC, 2009).
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Source: Carbon Clear (2011)
THE NEED FOR CARBON NEUTRALITY STANDARD
Due to its simplicity, Carbon neutrality has been accepted and embraced by companies and organizations looking for a fair response to climate change. However, there were a number of ‘greenwash’ cases in2008 which started to cast doubt on the confidence and effectiveness of carbon neutrality (No standard to protect companies embracing carbon neutrality from criticisms) hence, the need to set up standards, certifications and guidelines. A genuine carbon offset standard must be such that it contains (a) Accounting standards, (b) monitoring, verification, and certification standard and (c) registration and enforcement system. The British Standard Institution (BSI) developed the PAS2060 to provide what was lacking and strengthen the carbon neutrality concept (Carbon Clear, 2011).
PAS 2060: before the advent of PAS 2060, there was no common standard outlining organizational boundaries, internal reduction requirements and types of offsets, it was therefore difficult for consumers to access the credibility of company’s neutrality claims and this was threatening the value of the neutrality concept (Carbon clear, 2011). This issue drove the need to introduce the Publicly Available Specification (PAS 2060) to create common definition and produce recognized validation method; the focus of PAS 2060 is on reduction and offsetting, countering the criticism that carbon offsets alone are insufficient in the response to climate change (Carbon clear, 2010). PAS 2060 has a four-phased framework, adding a declaration of achievements (documentation) to the three stages of carbon neutrality: this fourth stage helps with validating the whole carbon neutrality scope. Carbon Clear, (2011) has different phases as:
Phase 1 (Measurement): this is the first step of the PAS 2060 and it involves taking account of the carbon footprint of the product or the organization footprint. The standard for an organisation should either be ISO 14064-1 or GHG corporate protocol and PAS 2050 life cycle assessment for products and services. The emission (footprint) is out into 3 scopes and it must include 100% of scope 1 and scope 2 and also all scope’s 3 emission that adds more than 1% of the total footprint.
Scope 1: Direct emissions – emissions from GHG sources around or controlled by the organization.
Scope 2: Indirect emission – emission from the generation of electricity, heat or steam consumed by the organization.
Scope 3: other indirect emissions such as consumption of the organizations’ products and services and the end product disposals.
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Source: Carbon Clear (2011)
PHASE 2 (REDUCTION): this involves reducing the emission by the organization by developing and implementing a carbon management plan which includes a public commitment to carbon neutrality. Successful implementation must be higher than the economic growth rate for the area where the organization operates.
PHASE 3 (OFFSETTING): it is required that the amount of emission remaining after reduction is offset by certified carbon credits which meet the following criteria:
a. It’s from one of the PAS 2060 approved scheme e.g. voluntary carbon standard or joint implementation.
b. It’s genuinely additional
c. It’s verified by an independent third party to ensure that emission reduction is not double counted, avoids leakage and permanent.
d. Retired after 12months maximum to a credible registry.
PHASE 4 (DOCUMENTATION AND VERIFICATION): this requires a standard-compliant neutrality achievement declaration. It helps to promote transparency, it’s an evidence of emission reduction and retired offset credit. It requires two declaration forms, the first for declaring a commitment to carbon neutrality while the second is for achievement declaration.
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Source: Carbon Clear (2011)
IS CARBON NEUTRALITY SUSTAINABLE?
Sustainability implies living today in such a manner that allows for the future generation to live their own life without threats of our today’s actions. Human nature is adventurous, we tend to want to try things out; we play with nature before we really fully understand the impacts our actions will have and it’s evident enough in climate change today is the most-talked-about environmental issue as a result of emission of GHG (chief of which is carbon). According to Carbon Sense, (2008) scientist advice to the world now is to aim for a CO2 concentration level in the atmosphere which is lower than what we have currently or better still stop emission; this, however, has caused a series of integrity check on the issue of carbon neutrality as it affects emission.
The Kyoto protocol allows for investment from developed countries to help meet the needs of developing countries in what’s called offset of carbon as this appears to provide a step forward in carbon reduction in an economically efficient manner, (Carbon sense, 2008). The carbon offset idea is to make funds available for projects that reduce GHG and impose a cost on those that generate them, however, its sustainability is doubtful (Sharon, 2007).
First is the issue of carbon neutrality lacking proper accounting and documentation measure, there’s a case of how do you measure what an organization has reduced to justify what the company is offsetting. A company comes out to state what it has reduced to justify what it’s going to offset without proper documents to justify this. There’s also an argument about the fact that does the proposed offset affects the previous emission or it’s just for the present-day emission. If an organization decides to invest in carbon offset, the organization should of importance provide a transparent and honest view of the plan which should explain the length and effect over time (ERNST & YOUNG, 2010).
Another issue borders on the offset project itself; choosing to plant trees as a singular project has come under fire as being weaker in terms of efficiency but that organizations go for it because it’s cheaper than some other offset projects (Carbonica, 2012). The trees we plant today as offset project if cut down later or burnt will release back into the atmosphere carbon that we’re trying to reduce (UNEP, 2008), besides, can anyone really calculate the carbon performance of a tree or how much carbon a tree can absorb? (FERN, 2005). Also, on the project issues is the argument of how we offset for the carbons emitted during the construction or development of offset projects such as Dam or wind turbines constructions.
Also, there’s the issue of seeing carbon neutrality as a way to encourage ‘business as usual’ as we can “continue to emit and burn fossil fuel as far as we would offset after a reduction claim”. This has countered the idea of carbon neutrality and offset as documented calculations that make us ‘foolishly’ relax and think we’re making secure the climate of our future while in the real sense we are not.
Other critics opine carbon neutrality and offset idea as just a means of buying your way out of trouble, there’s also increasing worries the quality of the offset projects and double counting avoidance, issues on how to define boundaries of the activities being considered is also a point those against carbon neutrality are raising. Opposition to carbon neutrality is, however, advocating a process whereby you (organizations) remove more carbon from the atmosphere than they’re responsible for creating, CARBON NEGATIVITY.
DOING NOTHING IS MORE DANGEROUS
There’s no gainsaying the fact that our climate is fast becoming alien to us due to emission of Greenhouse gases causing to climate change, things need to be done as we can’t just fold our hands and expect the cycle to correct itself after all we’ve deposited to change the cycle for the sake of our development. Climate change is a serious threat to the continued existence of civilization as some experts are concluding that we might have less than about 10years before climate change becomes what we cannot control, hence the earlier we do something the better (Carbon sense, 2006). It’s too late to say we want to avoid climate change and its effects, mitigating against worsening the change is what we need to do and if we fail to do this, the impact will continue to increase painfully on the environment and the life within it (DFID, 2008). While it’s true according to FERN, (2005) that the only way to reduce emission is by stopping fossil fuel extraction, something needs to be done before that is outrightly achieved: carbon neutrality comes as a system which can help us salvage this present ugly situation we’ve found ourselves by systematically ensuring that we reduce our emission (individually and as organizations) and also making pathway (through financing projects that would be eco-friendly majorly in developing regions) through offsetting the residual ones, this is a change from what it used to be where everyone wholly dumps their emission into the atmosphere. It might not seem the perfect solution but there’s no perfect solution to the issue of climate change, what we need is a present solution to the issue as not doing something about it today would only make worse the rising global temperature, sea level rising, desertification, water scarcity their attending effects on human health, animals going into extinction and the ecosystem falling off its system (carbon footprint, 2012). Some dangers associated with doing nothing now includes:
- Increased heat waves during the warm season.
- Approximately 49cm sea-level increase over the next 100 years.
- An increased approximation of about 2.5oC in air temperature by 2100.
- Increased coastal flooding as a result of sea level rising.
- More endangered animal species going into extinction (carbon footprint, 2012).
Reducing carbon emission in its real sense is costly; however, the idea of neutrality and offsetting is cost0effective and economically efficient while at the same time advocating constant reduction as much as you offset making it an appropriate present solution for a problem that threatens our future existence. It’s not just saving ice caps and the glaciers, it’s about ensuring the prevention of our environment; an environment upon which 6.5billion people rely for existence (shelter, food, water) (Carbon Planet, 2007). Offsetting does not just help in carbon (GHG in general) reduction but it also tends to bring development closer to places where the projects are established making organizations responsible for the commonweal of the world at large. It is therefore important to channel the gains of neutrality most effectively too:
- Enhance socio-environmental benefits to hosts of projects
- Reduction of GHG in a way that’s economically efficient.
- Contributes its quota to climate protection through verifiable, permanent and real carbon emission reduction while at the same time limiting unintended negative consequences.
While oppositions of Carbon Neutrality are calling for its abolition, my question as an independent critic is “DO WE FOLD OUR HANDS?” the biggest challenge of this generation is taking an abstract idea like carbon neutrality and turning it to reality. Carbon neutrality should be seen not as a destination but a journey to a destination, not a solution but a foundation to build upon; either we accept it or yes, carbon neutrality would help to reduce emission either through forcing companies and organizations to reduce or through offset and the offset projects help build energy-efficient and low carbon emission structures. It shouldn’t be about meeting deadlines for carbon emission reduction or targets; however, it should be encouraged to evaluate and constantly re-evaluate organizations’ activities while we source for a more sustainable way of cutting down emissions and make our environment and climate a better place.
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