Friday, 17 April 2009

Sainsbury Gets It Exactly Wrong

Like many consumer-facing busineses around the world, Sainbury has embarked on a greening initiative that includes an effort to reduce in the company's carbon footprint.

Earlier this week, Neil Sachdev, commercial director for UK supermarket retailer J. Sainsbury was asked to discuss his view on carbon offsets.

"It just passes the problem to a third party. It makes more sense to focus on energy efficiency, where there are clear economic and environmental savings."

With all due respect, Mr Sachdev has gotten it exactly backwards. Not just a little off target; his view is exactly counter to how offsets work.

Poor brick makers in Nicaragua are not razing their country's forests for fuel because they want to; they're doing it because they can't readily access a cleaner alternative. Similarly, the owners of an Indian textile mill would prefer not to use polluting coal or fuel oil to generate heat for their factory, but cleaner alternatives simply may be unfeasible.

People in poorer countries are not emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere because they enjoy it. Their pollution is a symptom of energy poverty - their inability to access cleaner sources of energy. The savings from switching to more cost effective and cleaner alternatives are clear.

Additionality - a key concept in the carbon world - means proving that the project would not have happened without the expectation of carbon credit funding. So purchasing carbon offset credits means providing the funds to create projects that would otherwise not exist, and that displace more polluting activities.

In other words, purchasing carbon offset credits means you're not passing on the problem; just the opposite. Using carbon credits means you're passing on a solution.

To be fair, Sachdev was trying to argue that purchasing offsets was a less efficient use of funds than reducing his company's own emissions. But as I've explained previously, it doesn't have to be either-or. Reducing emissions anywhere helps the climate; a tonne of CO2 reduction at home doesn't have some magical climate benefit that an overseas reduction lacks.

In that same article, a representative from beverage maker Diageo referred to offsets as a "last resort". This language implies that it is acceptable to wait to achieve some emissions reductions. Unfortunately, climate change is such a huge problem that we don't have a moment to spare. We simply cannot afford to reduce, then offset. We have to pursue both at the same time.

The planet doesn't care whether your emission reduction is costly or cheap, so long as it happens swiftly. So the real challenge is to find the activities that will generate the most ambitious, fastest, and most cost-effective reductions.

In many cases, energy saving measures at home will be low-cost or actually save money. In other cases, reducing carbon close to home will be relatively expensive. In those cases, it would be more cost effective to help Nicaraguan brick makers and Indian textile mills reduce their emissions instead.

Climate change is too big a problem to fight with one hand tied behind our back. At Carbon Clear, we encourage our clients to do more to help the environment by embarking on a comprehensive reduce-AND-offset programme. It's time for other companies to come on board.

(Carbon Clear homepage)