ISSN 1108-8931


Year 8 - Issue 92 - Aug 07

Sponsored by: Hana Maui Botanical Gardens, Maris Hotels Traditional Apartments, Vythiri Resort,
Beyond Touring, Siam Safari Nature Tours, Canyon Travel, Abha Palace

Stella Bell: "Offsetting is not about planting trees, although there are a lot of companies out there who would try to convince you otherwise!" Interview with Stella Bell, Climate Care, UK
Index of Interviews

Stella BellMs 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 with clients.

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

(The Interview follows:) Please 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 burnt.

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 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 stagnant?

Absolutely, I think the demand from customers to offset is growing. I don't know if your one in ten figure comes from the 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 their share. 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 emissions?

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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