Does the government need to provide guidance on the term ‘carbon neutral’?

The Department for Energy and Climate Change has been running a consultation on the meaning of the term ‘carbon neutral’. Today they published their report. ‘Carbon neutral’ has been given the definition:

Carbon neutral means that – through a transparent process of calculating emissions, reducing those emissions and offsetting residual emissions – net carbon emissions equal zero.

The government is repeating the general mantra that carbon offsetting must be the last step in carbon management, following measurement and internal reduction.

I have always found this view a bit simplistic and also feel the government is sticking its oar in too far by giving a hard line in an area of voluntary corporate responsibility. There is no similar guidance for corporate foundations regarding which charities they should support, for example.

For most organisations, it is not clear what ‘residual’ emissions are. At some point the cost of internal abatement reaches an unbearable level and offsetting makes more sense. But this point is not obvious for any organisation. Very few have a full breakdown of the environmental projects available to them and the cost per tonne of each project. And even if they did, they would be unlikely to be able to decide on the threshold for which projects are affordable – particularly if they cannot compare internal projects with carbon offsets on the same terms (because internal projects should be prioritised).

The carbon offsetting industry supports a strict ‘measure-reduce-offset’ hierarchy because it is regularly accused of creating the moral hazard that it’s OK to keep on polluting. A self confident offsetting industry – an industry that believes its credits have environmental value – would position offsets as a legitimate tool that can be weighed against internal reductions.

Having made those criticisms, I would strongly advise any company wishing to claim it is ‘carbon neutral’ to follow DECC’s guidance. There is no point saying you are carbon neutral if you are going to be shot down by campaigners or switched on customers who believe you are making unsubstantiated claims. Following the guidance at least means you can point to a common methodology. Even better, avoid the term carbon neutral altogether.

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One Response to “Does the government need to provide guidance on the term ‘carbon neutral’?”

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