Thursday, 19 February 2009

Paying It Forward

I've worked in countries all over the world and speak a few languages. As a result, I like to think I'm a pretty self-reliant traveler.

But during my most recent trip to Central America a complete stranger helped me out. The specific details aren't important, but what's notable is that a person whom I'd never met before walked up, took the time and effort to make my day a little better, and then walked away.

"Thanks!" I called after her, pleasantly surprised at this small kindness. "Isn't there something I can do to repay you?"

"I'm happy to help," she responded. "Pay it forward instead." And then she was gone.

Paying it forward means helping other people when it's not in your own immediate financial interest. It means going out of your way to make the world a slightly better place - even if you may not see the benefit yourself.

Paying it forward is a concept that is immensely relevant to our efforts to combat climate change.

Will we choose a slightly less convenient mode of transportation or pay slightly more for cleaner energy when the benefits go to future generations or to people in far-flung corners of the world? Will we take action now to avert a danger that may not come to pass in our own lifetimes?

The conventional wisdom is that most people will answer "no" to these questions. Most efforts to engage the public in the climate change debate therefore take narrow-minded self interest as their starting point. Environmental groups strive to document the effects of climate change in our own backyards. Pressure groups lobby government to penalise companies that don't reduce emissions. And companies like Carbon Clear find ways for businesses to see a direct benefit from their carbon reduction measures.

People clearly do act in their own self interest. But many observers worry that these attempts will not be enough to avert the worst effects of climate change. They point out that governments will not enforce tight limits and that companies and individuals may put their bottom lines ahead of the environment. The worriers may be right. But something else is happening.

People are paying it forward.

Around the world, more and more companies and individuals are setting voluntary emission reduction targets, and volunteering to pay for livelihoods-enhancing emissions reduction projects in developing countries. These are clean energy initiatives that are often not included in government regulated carbon trading schemes, and that would not have happened without these voluntary carbon payments.

In Nicaragua, Carbon Clear's customers are helping traditional brick and tile producers reduce their energy costs and protect the country's rapidly shrinking forests. With deforestation responsible for about 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions and a major environmental threat in Nicaragua, new technology is making a real difference to both planet and people.

Our project is not covered under the government-backed carbon credit mechanism. If we were limited to those tools this fantastic initiative in Nicaragua would never have happened. It is only alternative carbon certification schemes like the Voluntary Carbon Standard and Gold Standard - backed by companies and individuals willing to take voluntary action - that enable us to make this contribution to the lives of people in rural communities around the world.

Last year the voluntary carbon market doubled in size, while governments struggle to develop a post-Kyoto climate change agreement. And the voluntary market continues to grow this year despite a global economic crisis.

Something special is happening.

More and more people are paying it forward.

More of us are taking action beyond government regulation and narrow self-interest. That's good news in the fight against climate change, and good news for communities around the world.

(Carbon Clear homepage)