Carbon Con? Offsetting your travel has come a long way since the ‘plant a tree’ days. But is it any more meaningful?

It used to be so easy being green. Mostly, it entailed using less hairspray. And if you got on a plane, you could just pay someone to plant a tree somewhere and your conscience was clear.

It even became a cause celebre, with the likes of Sienna Miller and Josh Hartnett buying up bits of forests and chatting confidently about carbon offsetting.

These days, this kind of easy eco has dropped off the cool list, thanks in part to the scorn of environmental groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, who pointed out that it doesn’t work.

In an interview with the Independent, Greenpeace’s senior climate adviser Charlie Kronick, described the practice as a smokescreen.

‘It can’t be done,’ he said, ‘The methodology is poor and the logic isn’t very good either. Once the carbon you’ve put in from fossil fuels is up there, nothing is going to make it go away.

In the organisation’s briefing, Flawed Logic, Greenpeace asserts that ‘the only chance to stop climate change is to avoid carbon emissions from all sources, meaning that we need to ultimately end burning fossil fuels while at the same time protecting forests. Protecting forests is important not just for the carbon they contain but also for biodiversity and the people they support.

Nevertheless, individuals and businesses continue to produce vast carbon footprints, and charities, non-profits and other organisations still hover around the carbon issue, all hoping to pick up a share of the guilt-offsetting cash

With the ‘dark greens’ keen to point out that even buying a bottle of water on a plane can have a ripple effect on the environment when you trace back production, transport, bottling techniques, waste etc, you’re in trouble before you’ve even taxied to the runway.

But British Airways, for example, does invest in carbon reduction projects, using the guidelines of the Kyoto Protocol, including small-scale UK feel-good programmes, as well as larger ventures, such as Europe’s first biomass to liquid plant, which was predicted to be providing the airline with biofuel by this year.

With the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) warning in September 2014 that greenhouse gases have surged to a record high, rising at the fastest rate for 30 years, it’s perhaps surprising that carbon-reducing programmes aren’t higher up the political agenda.

WMO secretary-general Michel Jarraud said: ‘The greenhouse gas bulletin shows that, far from falling, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere actually increased last year at the fastest rate for nearly 30 years.

‘We must reverse this trend by cutting emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases across the board. We are running out of time.

‘Carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for many hundreds of years and in the ocean for even longer. Past, present and future CO2 emissions will have a cumulative impact on both global warming and ocean acidification. The laws of physics are non-negotiable.’

There are plenty of exciting carbon reduction programmes out there, gagging for investment, and green travel experts do recommend that we spend our cash with them when we also invest in high-carbon activities, such as flying.

Policy around the world is changing and entrepreneurs are now making huge strides in low-carbon energy. The possibilities are now out there – it’s about how quickly they are implemented.

But the darker green lobby continues to argue that mass tourism is unsustainable. Writing in the Guardian, Anna Pollock argued that although it’s a stimulant of economic recovery, our entire attitude to tourism needs to change.

‘We need to develop the idea of conscious travel and start to imagine a better alternative,’ she said. ‘Unfortunately, there is no magic wand or silver bullet; change will need to occur at the grassroots level, one destination at a time.

‘It will first and foremost require hosts to wake up and see their world differently – not as a resource to be exploited, but as a sacred place to be protected and celebrated for its uniqueness.

‘Second, it is important they start to view their customers not as mere units of consumption, but as guests seeking to be healed and transformed. Our conscious or mindful alternative is about less volume, congestion, hassle, destruction and harm and about more meaning, purpose, value, peace and fulfillment. In short, not more but better.’

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