Government to clear up carbon neutral confusion

DECC formally launches carbon offset quality mark and announces consultation on carbon neutral definition

The government has today formally launched its carbon offsetting quality mark and announced a consultation designed to settle upon a clear definition for the term "carbon neutral".

Energy and climate change minister Joan Ruddock said that the new government-backed label would provide businesses and consumers with confidence that the carbon offsets they buy are delivering real and verifiable emission savings.

However, many within the carbon offsetting industry remain highly critical of the criteria used to award the quality mark, arguing that they exclude many credible projects that deliver real emission reductions and aid development in poorer countries.

Under the government's rules, the Carbon Offsetting Quality Mark can only be carried by so-called Certified Emission Reduction (CER) credits issued by projects approved under the UN's Clean Development Mechanism.

Ruddock said that the strict criteria would "improve transparency and give confidence to people wanting to offset their travel".

However, offsetting trade group the International Carbon Reduction and Offset Alliance (ICROA) has been highly critical of the decision to only award the quality mark to CDM-approved projects. It has argued that many smaller projects that issue so-called Verified Emissions Reduction (VER) credits still deliver verifiable emission reductions but will not be able to carry the government label as they can not afford the administrative costs of joining the CDM.

Moreover, the CDM does not support forestry projects, meaning that despite the government's high-profile commitment to help address deforestation, offset projects that aim to protect tropical forests will not be allowed to carry the government quality label.

Speaking to earlier this month, ICROA's Edward Hanrahan said that there was a strong case for extending the quality label to cover VERS.

"CERs are designed for large projects and compulsory carbon trading schemes, while VERs help fund smaller, more innovative projects which often help alleviate poverty and tackle deforestation," he said.

A spokesman for DECC said that talks were ongoing with the offsetting industry and that the quality mark could be extended to cover VERs should the criteria used to award the credits be tightened to address concerns over how emission reductions are measured.

"We will continue to work with the industry, but what is most important now is to provide customers with confidence in the sector," he said. "If we are to put a government label on something we need to be confident the emission reductions are real, and at the moment CERs are the best way of providing that confidence."

Ruddock said that there was also the need to bring clarity to the often-criticised claims of "carbon neutrality".

A number of high-profile firms have claimed in recent years that the offset credits they buy make them "carbon neutral". However, the term has been criticised by some green groups who argue it creates the false impression that they do not need to reduce their own carbon emissions as funding projects in the developing world addresses the problem for them.

Launching the consultation on the term, Ruddock said that there was a need for greater consistency in its use and a clear definition of what constitutes carbon neutral.

"The UK will need to live within set carbon budgets as we reduce our emissions by 80 per cent by 2050," she said. "This will be nothing short of a revolution in the way we live and we need to ensure that terms such as 'carbon neutral' are not used carelessly but are clear measures of what we can and will achieve."

The consultation could yet have major repercussions for one of the UK's largest offsetting firms, The CarbonNeutral Company, which coined the term and offers customers such as Sky, Channel 4, Avis and Volvo the opportunity to "neutralise" the emissions from their operations.

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