From Chris Martin and Sting to Harry and Meghan, jet-setting stars salve their eco-conscience by sending money to ‘carbon offset’ firms – but with some ‘replacement’ forests soon dying off, GUY ADAMS finds it might be a load of hot air
High-flyers: The Duke and Duchess
While touring the world to promote Coldplay’s second album A Rush Of Blood To The Head, frontman Chris Martin found himself feeling guilty about the environmental cost of his private jet habit.
So the macrobiotic pop star announced that he’d be paying for 10,000 mango trees to be planted in southern India, thereby (allegedly) rendering the entire production of his hit record ‘carbon neutral’.
Fans could chip in if they wanted, via his website, paying £17.50 to receive a certificate (printed on recycled paper) saying that they, too, had paid for a mango tree.
‘This is the greatest idea that anybody has come up with recently,’ Martin declared. ‘I hope everyone who cares will become involved too. There’s nothing like trees: girls and trees make the world go round!’
It was 2002, and climate change was fast becoming the most modish cause celebre of the celebrity class.
So Martin’s scheme was duly copied by a host of virtue-signalling tree-huggers, from Leonardo DiCaprio to Sting, Kylie Minogue to the Foo Fighters.
They started paying for small forests to be planted across the developing world. The big idea was that these would then soak up all the nasty carbon dioxide being belched out by their favourite planes, cars, and yachts, allowing them to smugly continue following a luxury lifestyle without damaging the planet.
That was the theory, at least. Come 2006, Martin began to look like he’d suffered an old-fashioned rush of blood to the head.
It emerged that, in the four years since the so-called Coldplay Forest had been planted, at least 40 per cent of its mango trees had already died.
Impoverished farmers in the dusty countryside of Karnataka State, where the saplings were planted, began complaining that they’d not been paid for labour, insecticide, or spraying equipment necessary to actually nurture them.
While touring the world to promote Coldplay’s second album A Rush Of Blood To The Head, frontman Chris Martin found himself feeling guilty about the environmental cost of his private jet habit
Over the ensuing years, it was reported that a hefty portion of Martin’s surviving mango plants had then burned down, releasing dirty clouds of CO2 back into the atmosphere and rendering the entire project pointless.
The unfortunate affair, which was widely studied, highlighted what is now known among climate scientists as the ‘Coldplay conundrum’. It refers to the phenomenon by which well-meaning public figures, who seek to advertise their eco-friendly credentials – while simultaneously globe-trotting – inevitably put themselves at risk of ending up with a serious dollop of egg on their face.
Just such a situation faced Prince Harry this week, after Elton John sought to defend the royal eco-warrior’s recent private jet journey to the South of France – one of four his family has taken in recent days – by announcing: ‘We ensured their flight was carbon neutral, by making the appropriate contribution to Carbon Footprint.’
So what exactly is Carbon Footprint and does it deliver?
The Basingstoke-based firm, which allows concerned citizens to ‘offset’ their personal carbon emissions for a small fee, is run by a husband and wife couple, John and Wendy Buckley.
It’s a leading player in a rapidly-growing industry which seeks to provide a quick and easy means for customers to feel like they are combating climate change – without having to do anything more than write a small cheque.
ClimateCare is another big player in the offsetting industry. Clients are reported to include David Cameron, in his days of hugging huskies
To supporters, carbon offsetting offers a pragmatic and relatively hassle-free means for the public to repair some of the damage caused by their modern lifestyles. It also allows celebrities (and royals) to sidestep at least some allegations of hypocrisy as they set off on yet another ski, beach or safari holiday.
Yet the industry is also the subject of fierce criticism, particularly among environmentalists, who see it as a highly-unethical form of so-called ‘greenwashing’.
Friends Of The Earth have repeatedly called offsetting a ‘con’ and Greenpeace have described its methodology as ‘dodgy’.
The campaigner George Monbiot has dubbed carbon offsetting ‘pernicious and destructive nonsense’, comparing offsetting to the Medieval system of ‘indulgences’ via which wealthy people could buy pardons from the Catholic church to supposedly atone for their sins, without altering their destructive behaviour.
Carbon Footprint were unavailable for comment yesterday, but say on their website: ‘Carbon offsetting is a way to reduce the emissions that you can’t. It both helps to combat global climate change as well as caring for local communities.’
But as Monbiot and many other opponents see it, the only way to prevent climate change is to stop flying in the first place.
Emma Thompson, the Hollywood actress who recently flew First Class to London from Los Angeles to join Extinction Rebellion protests against climate change
All of which meant that while acknowledging the good intentions, it wasn’t long before critics began to argue that Sir Elton’s claim that the private flight was ‘carbon neutral’ was nonsense.
Leading the charge was Greenpeace’s chief scientist, Dr Doug Parr, who said carbon offsetting was not a ‘meaningful response’ to flight emissions.
How, then, has such a lucrative industry developed?
At its most basic level, carbon offsetting companies use money paid by clients (minus a small fee) to finance a variety of projects that take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or prevent it being emitted.
Some might plant trees (which absorb CO2) in the UK and abroad, others finance projects to distribute energy efficient stoves, or lightbulbs to the developing world.
One scheme financed by Carbon Footprint repairs broken boreholes – which give communities access to clean drinking water – in Uganda. That means, in theory at least, they no longer have to cut down trees and burn them in order to make fires to boil water.
Another pays for trees to be planted at schools in the UK. Beneficiaries have included Ivybridge Primary, near Twickenham Stadium, where nearly 1.300 saplings were planted on the border of a playing field last year, and an unnamed school near the Hertfordshire studios where the new Spider-Man film was made.
It was recently given 72 saplings by Carbon Footprint client Sony pictures (one for each day of filming) to turn into a native hedge.
Projects may also support solar energy or wind farm schemes, or pay to protect threatened areas of the Amazon rainforest from logging. An auditing process then establishes how much carbon each project has ‘offset’ each year, for example by working out how much CO2 an individual sapling will convert into oxygen. Customers can then tailor their payments accordingly.
Buy a Virgin Atlantic flight to New York, and you will be told that you are producing 0.96 tons of CO2. For £7, on top of your ticket price, a company called ClimateCare will ‘offset’ those particular emissions.
ClimateCare is another big player in the offsetting industry. Clients are reported to include David Cameron, in his days of hugging huskies, and Emma Thompson, the Hollywood actress who recently flew First Class to London from Los Angeles to join Extinction Rebellion protests against climate change.
Founded in 2007, it now puts between £10million to £20million a year into its projects.
Carbon Footprint – as favoured by Elton John – is also doing well: last year, its assets increased by £375,000 to £1,531,775.
All very well and good. Yet critics regard their lucrative line of business with disdain.
‘Offsetting is a con,’ Friends Of The Earth has stated. ‘It encourages businesses and individuals to carry on polluting when we urgently need to reduce our carbon emissions. It allows people to develop the mindset that it’s OK to carry on polluting if green schemes in far-off locations make up for it.’
Friends Of The Earth have repeatedly called offsetting a ‘con’ and Greenpeace have described its methodology as ‘dodgy’ (stock image)
Sceptics point out that many offsetting schemes take ages to have a significant effect. Newly planted trees may never mature, and even if they do, won’t reach peak CO2 reducing powers for decades, whereas the carbon we release by driving or flying is going into the atmosphere immediately. They also say the real effect of offsetting projects is hugely tricky to measure, since it’s never entirely clear how much carbon is actually taken out of the atmosphere by them.
Meanwhile, you never really know whether the wind farm financed by donations from offsetting firms might have been built anyway.
‘Just as in the 15th and 16th centuries you could sleep with your sister and kill and lie without fear of eternal damnation, today you can live exactly as you please as long as you give your ducats to one of the companies selling indulgences,’ Monbiot has written.
Others have criticised the impact of offsetting projects on indigenous communities, likening it to a form of colonialism.
In 2017, a controversy erupted in Ecuador over a Californian project to turn 2.5 million hectares of forest into a reserve. Indigenous people were told they were no longer allowed to gather firewood or hunt in traditional tribal areas.
Then there are environmental problems caused by some carbon-capturing trees. A 2017 report by Kew Gardens observed that huge ‘monoculture’ plantations of thirsty eucalyptus, a plant that is especially good at soaking up CO2, were using up valuable water required by developing communities, and also increasing the danger of forest fires, since they are highly flammable.
Yet for all that, offsetting continues to grow. While supporters accept that some providers, particularly in the early days, were ‘cowboys’, they say the industry has improved its methods considerably and disasters of the sort that befell Coldplay are now unlikely.
Though it remains unregulated, supporters say that a trade body called the International Carbon Reduction and Offset Alliance, which now has 14 members, help consumers identify reputable offsetting companies, and ensures their work is properly audited.
‘I am actually in violent agreement with Friends Of The Earth and Greenpeace,’ says Edward Hanrahan, of ClimateCare. ‘Like them, I accept the best way to reduce your emissions is not to take that flight in the first place. But I am also a pragmatist and believe in dealing with the world as we find it.
‘So while what we do isn’t perfect, I would say that offsetting is the most effective option around today.’
In other words, it’s better than doing nothing.
But, as Prince Harry and his wife Meghan are doubtless starting to realise, you can either be an environmentalist, or you can fly in private jets.
But no matter how many trees you plant, you will never truly be able to do both.