Stella Bell has a diverse working background in the City of
London, the Travel industry and the voluntary sector. With an MA in
Tourism and Sustainability from the University of the West of England, she
previously worked for an environmental NGO in Athens. Her day to day work
involves selling carbon offsets to businesses and managing relationships
Climate Care provides services to help repair the damage human
activities do to the climate. It does this by ‘offsetting’ the greenhouse
gas emissions, such as CO2, from a person’s or company’s activities by
reducing an equivalent amount of CO2 on their behalf. These reductions are
made through a range of projects in renewable energy, energy efficiency
and forest restoration, which, it argues, not only fight climate change
but bring benefits to communities round the world. Currently, one can
offset emissions from flying, driving and household energy use. To find
out more visit www.climatecare.org
(The Interview follows:)
first tell us a few things about your specific responsibility within your
organisation, selling carbon offsets to companies and explain why a
company is better off partnering with your organisation, rather than
trying to limit or offset their emissions directly?
I'm the Business Development Manager at Climate Care with particular focus
on the Travel industry. I sell offsets to businesses who, in most cases
are making efforts to reduce their carbon footprint and want to offset
what remains. We always encourage companies to offset what they cannot
reduce, and fortunately, most of the companies we're dealing with have
come to us as part of a broader strategy to look at the sustainability of
their service/product. I would never suggest that it is better to partner
with us than to try to limit emissions, reducing and offsetting should
always go hand in hand. When you're buying a holiday, almost certainly the
biggest environmental impact of your trip is going to be the flight, but
in a lot of cases there's no alternative but to fly to get to the
destination. We recognise the enormous benefits of travel to destination
economies, but believe that people have to do something to reduce their
impact if at all possible and offset what they can't reduce. When I went
to the Association of British Travel Agents' convention last November in
Marbella, for example, I travelled by train. When you're travelling within
Europe, it's possible to do this (although I don't think there are enough
financial incentives to go for the cleaner, greener option). I paid
probably what amounted to five times more to travel there than I would
have done if I'd flown, but I believe it's important to fly only when you
have to. Personally, if I travel by plane now (which I don't do lightly),
I make sure that I make it a positive action by offsetting the carrier's
average number of empty seats.
There all sorts of objections (or excuses) to carbon-offsetting from
right, centre and left. There are the greenhouse deniers who find no proof
that CO2 emissions are causing global warming, some others, who
light-heartedly believe that some global warming is not a bad thing, or
that fossil-fuels will some day run out, or technology will evolve and the
problem will be solved. Some have moral problems: a comment in an online
BBC forum famously compared it to "peeing in the swimming pool, but then
buying FairTrade biscuits in the cafeteria afterwards". Others suspect
that you may be taking travellers funds away from other charities (and
travel charities) serving more pressing needs, such as poverty-reduction,
hunger, disease, human and workers rights abuse. And some in the left
believe it is yet one more capitalist fashionable gimmick for the
globalised elites. Others, like planestupid have even set up initiatives
calling on people not to fly at all. If everyone is against you, surely
you must be doing something right? And has some of the more valid
criticism actually helped you improve your projects?
I'm glad to say that the debate has now moved away from the greenhouse
deniers, and anyone without a massive vested interest in the status quo
accepts that climate change is happening and is human-induced. As you say,
fossil fuels will one day run out, they're not an infinite resource, but
there's more than enough under the ground that we can get our hands on to
heat the globe to a pretty uncomfortable temperature for civilisation as
we know it, so I don't think that their running out is going to solve the
problem for us.
The argument that technology will save us may be the case for some areas,
but it seems unlikely that this will happen with aircraft. We are
currently a long way off a technology that can provide enough lift to get
immensely heavy aircraft into the air other than by using fossil fuels.
Also with aircraft fleets, they are long term investments and any
revolutionary changes that may come about that were not retro-fittable
would not affect current stock - think about it - aircraft being built
today will have an expected life-span of anything up to 40 years, so again
this argument doesn't hold water.
When people get angry and say that there are far more important things
that the world should be focussing on, like poverty alleviation, it seems
strange to me. Trying to reduce global climate change is all about poverty
alleviation - as the Stern report said, to make the necessary changes now
could cost 1% of global GDP per year, if we leave it until later it could
cost anything up to 20%. It's the developing world that will be hit worst
when things get really hot, by investing now we're working in future
poverty prevention rather than alleviation.
It's not only emissions reductions that are achieved under our offsetting
scheme, it's enabling people in countries where they'd not otherwise be
able to afford to, to go for the cleaner option - where in India or China
it would be far cheaper to use more coal to generate your electricity, the
introduction of the carbon funding from offsets sold makes the cleaner
wind option (for example) financially viable.
Your comment about diverting funds from charities is an interesting one.
It's one of the reasons why Climate Care is established as a company
limited by guarantee. We're not a charity and don't feel that it should be
the job of a charity to clean up your waste. After all, your CO2 emissions
are the only waste stream you don't pay to have cleaned up. We also
believe that this is something that people should be doing and we don't
want offsets to draw on companies' budgets for charitable giving.
I wouldn't say that our critics have helped us improve our projects,
although demand from customers for quality projects with independent
verification drives us to drive for better standards.
Yet others have examined the way some offsetting schemes work,
or rather do not work: From newly burned down forests masquerading as
carbon-offsetting plantations, newly-planted trees actually emitting more
CO2 than they absorb, offsets priced so as to actually encourage people to
fly further so that they can pay more for the offset, choosing
reforestation projects in the poorest countries so as to pocket the cost
difference. So how can the bewildered traveller spot a fake scheme, and
are there many of these? Is there perhaps a need for independent
certification and verification of travel-related carbon-emission schemes
and associated offsetting projects?
Firstly, I'd like to make the point that offsetting is not about planting
trees (although there are a lot of companies out there who would try to
convince you otherwise). For example if you wanted to offset the UK's
emissions for a year, you'd need to plant an area the size of about Devon
and Cornwall with trees, and then ensure that they didn't die, become
diseased, get chopped or burnt down for the life of the offset (anything
between 50 and 100 years) - the following year you'd need to find another
piece of land the same size and start again. This is not something we can
plant our way out of, so we should be focusing our efforts – as Climate
Care is – on funding renewable energy and energy efficiency which reduce
dependency on fossil fuels. That said roughly 20% of global greenhouse gas
emissions come from deforestation and land-use change, so we cannot avoid
the issue of forest conservation.
Our integrity has always been under the scrutiny of our Steering committee
- chaired by Sir Crispen Tickell and with members from organisations such
as Forum for the Future and WWF, but as the market develops we recognise
the need for internationally recognised standards.
The UK government has just launched a consultation on the voluntary offset
market in the UK for that very reason. It's essential that there is some
kind of recognised standard, so that people know they're getting what
they're paying for. There are already two standards for the voluntary
market - The Voluntary Carbon Standard, and the Voluntary Gold Standard.
Both are in early stages of development.
At Climate Care we have a project policy to put all our projects
delivering over 10,000 tonnes of reductions through one of the two
voluntary market standards - this will take time, but we're aware of the
need for customers to have that independent stamp that we're really
delivering those emissions reductions.
We will, however, continue to fund small scale projects that would not
necessarily be financially viable with the added administrative costs of
registering with these standards. Our integrity and transparency (we were
the first, and possibly still the only voluntary offsetting company to
publish our annual report and accounts) means we have a trusted name, and
we believe that customers will continue to buy from these projects even
though they won't have the stamp of the standards.
A quick search online between competing offsetting companies
reveals huge differences in calculating offsetting prices for the same
routes using the omni-present & handy online CO2 calculators. Is this due
to lack of meaningful data on plane capacities, engine consumption, and
occupancy rates, or due to fraud?
Calculating your emissions from your seat on the plane is not a precise
science. There are far too many variables involved, and for this reason,
Climate Care commissioned a report from the Environmental Change Institute
(ECI) at Oxford University, to find a way to calculate them and explain it
for the benefit of our customers. This report is available on our website.
The reasons for variations are numerous - different planes, seat
configurations, freight, different fuel use etc. There's also what's
referred to as radiative forcing. When you burn a fossil fuel at ground
level with normal atmospheric conditions, you can calculate the CO2
emissions simply by taking the carbon content of the fuel and multiplying
it by a figure, which is the weight of Carbon Dioxide which will be
emitted when the carbon meets the oxygen in the atmosphere when it's
However, things become more complicated once you get into the upper
atmosphere, because the air is thinner and you have the added complication
of contrails and vapour trails (water vapour is a greenhouse gas) etc. We
know that the global warming impact of these other factors is greater than
the emissions from simply burning fuel at ground level, but we don't know
precisely how much greater an impact it has.
The ECI looked all the studies available and decided that a factor of two
was the most credible, so at Climate Care we use EU published average fuel
burn figures, for average air craft and for the landing and take off just
take the fuel burn emissions figures, but for the part of the flight in
the upper atmosphere we multiply the fuel burn figures by two to take into
account the radiative forcing. As I said, it's an imprecise science, but
we feel that as long as we are transparent about how we have come by these
figures, and these can be backed up scientifically through the ECI report,
we are offering our customers the best we can.
Looking at the supply side of the travel industry, is there
interest in large travel corporations? In tourism officialdom? And are
small outfits less or more interested in carbon-offsetting?
In the beginning it was the smaller specialist companies that partnered
with Climate Care, but the issue certainly moved into the mainstream when
British Airways partnered with us last year and we produced an emissions
calculator for their customers to offset their emissions.
With our launch with lastminute.com back in November, where, when UK
customers are booking their flight the offset is incorporated into the
booking process and you can't proceed without deciding whether or not
you'll offset, we're really making progress. Lastminute has had a ten
percent uptake since the introduction of the scheme. We're also working
with First Choice on a customer offering. With the prominence of the
issues in the media now, one of our smaller specialist companies has seen
an increase from 20% uptake at the beginning of 2006 to over 40% in the
fourth quarter of the year.
Do you find there is adequate
demand from air-travellers to support all carbon-offsetting schemes?
Estimates talk about just 1 in 10 holidaymaker offsetting their flights
carbon, have you noticed an increase, or is this percentage more or less
Absolutely, I think the demand from customers to offset is growing. I
don't know if your one in ten figure comes from the lastminute.com post
launch press release about uptake, but, as I explained above, where the
option is there for people to offset, they're taking it. A recent poll by
Amadeus one of the Global Distribution Systems (GDS) providers said that
25.6% of leisure and 26.5% of business travel agents are fielding
increasing questions on the environmental impact of their trip. 12.5% of
leisure and 14.3% of business travel businesses are now offering their
customers the option to offset their carbon emissions. Our web sales over
the last year have increased threefold.
New travel carbon-offsetting schemes seem to be popping up every
other day, particularly online. In the UK, which is way ahead in this
sector, and as you hinted earlier in our conversation, the environment
secretary recently announced that only offset schemes using officially
recognised carbon credits will be awarded a new government stamp of
approval. The officially recognised credits, known as certified emission
reductions (CERs) are twice as expensive as the unregulated alternatives,
the voluntary emission reductions (VERs). Notably only four companies met
the government's approval and surprisingly your own was not one of them,
although you had been recommended by travel authorities in the past. Do
you believe there is a need for government regulation, or does it create a
monopoly / oligopoly with the potential for corruption?
At Climate Care, we're very much aware of the need for independent
standards and verification of the emissions reductions and additional
sustainable development benefits being offered by offset projects, and
we're behind the UK government's consultation on this, but the whole thing
has been misrepresented in the press. The government has only just
launched the consultation on this, and we're a little concerned that they
have pre-empted the consultation by suggesting that people only buy
delivered CERs (as you mentioned above). At Climate Care, if the
government's conclusion is that they are only prepared to give the 'stamp
of approval' as you put it, to companies which are offering CERs, we will
offer CERs to our customers should they want them - as these are part of
the Kyoto Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), as you pointed out they are
more expensive. CDM projects also tend to be larger scale and don't always
offer the sustainable development and community benefits that the smaller
scale projects do, so we will continue to offer VERs, for which, as I
pointed out above, we will use the Voluntary Carbon Standard and Voluntary
Gold Standards to independently verify.
Beyond air travel, critics have been picking on the association
of some CO2 offseting schemes with large, old- fashioned car
manufacturers, who - critics allege, use carbon-offseting as an alibi for
not improving their engines so as to directly cut emissions - i.e.
greenwashing. What is your view? Is carbon-offseting a rather conservative
/ establishment response to an acute problem? Is it a 'smokescreen' that
delays real change, or is it the art of the possible?
I think in this question, you're referring to the partnership that we have
with Land Rover. The launch of the partnership with Land Rover to offset
the emissions from their UK assembly lines and the first 45,000 miles of
every new car sold came after an announcement by Ford, the parent company,
to invest £1 billion in developing a range of environmental technologies
in the UK for the companies in the group.
Mike Mason’s comment, Climate Care's founding director, in Climate Care’s
2006 Annual Report answers you questions about this partnership very
succinctly, I think: ‘Whatever [Land Rover’s] future plans, in reality
there is nothing they could do to get emissions down faster than the
combination of technology and public acceptance will allow. If they stop
selling the vehicles others will snap up their market, and if they don’t
they are guilty of destroying the climate – a case of “damned if they do
and damned if they don’t”. At least with the offering of 100% carbon
offsets (in effect compulsory for their customers) we collectively get the
emissions right down immediately, and give the planet some more breathing
space whilst technology, customers, and the newly sanctified politicians
get their act together.’
I don't believe carbon offsetting is what's delaying change, it's a lack
of political will that's delaying it. Mike Mason set up the company back
in 1998 because he wasn't prepared to sit back and watch governments do
nothing to address the real and growing threat of climate change. He would
like nothing better than to reach a point where there was no need for
organisations such as ours.
Why blame it on the consumers, who after all pay for the
products and services, and not on the producers? Why for example, not pass
a law to force airlines to offset their emissions? Would you object to
that, or do you rather believe it is not feasible due to airline
deregulation especially at a period of high oil prices?
Whatever happens the cost of offsetting will ultimately be passed onto the
consumer, and there are some companies now who have decided simply to
include the offset in the cost of the holiday. We need to start pricing
carbon into our everyday lives. We are all responsible for the carbon in
our lives. That's why most of the travel companies that work with us
offset their staff flights and then ask their customers to offset their
share of the flight.
I'd love to see airlines offsetting the emissions from the empty seats
(after all, it's not the consumers' fault that the airline doesn't sell
all the seats) and then getting the customers to take responsibility for
Finally, Tourism, is by no means the only cause of air traffic
pollution. Beyond other types of passenger air travel, there are
increasing numbers of air cargo flights, and indeed military flights.
Could your organisation or peers assist those sectors in offsetting their
Absolutely, we are working with a number companies to look into their
emissions from transportation of freight and are happy to work with them.
I think military flights is something that governments will have to look
at. It's a complex and secretive area, the full impact of which I think
we're unlikely to ever know.
Thank you very much
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