Carbon neutral? Why not ‘Climate responsible’?

Soon, the British Standards Institute will release a standard on ‘Carbon Neutral’ events.  That is, if your event does not follow and document key processes outlined in the standard, it cannot be deemed ‘carbon neutral’.

The pursuit of a standard which requires a commitment to reduced emissions is appropriate, but the Carbon Neutral “brand” needs to go.

Like a sassy ad for cigarettes, the current (pre-standard) ‘carbon neutral’ brand promotes unhealthy actions.  Event owners can now budget to offset varying degrees of carbon emissions and market the event with something that looks like responsible action although no effort to reduce event related emissions was planned.

Similarly, ‘carbon neutral’ smacks of the disigenuous.  ‘Neutral’ becomes re-defined by arbitrary parameters.  Did the measurement consider the emissions resulting from the production of the 20,000 square meters of carpet that will be landfilled or incinerated?  Probably not.  Still, the attractive ‘carbon neutral’ label is awarded. 

Granted, an investment in offsetting represents a still new and positive shift in how event owners account for the impact their meeting has on the climate. Further, the ‘carbon neutral’ standard, once released, will result in everybody using the same terminology and definitions.

Still, offsetting was never intended to be the solution, but one part of a multi-facted approach with emissions reduction requiring the most focus.  Even then, our response without a major effort to safely sequester carbon will prove inadequate to achieve the 350ppm to keep our familiar climate in balance.

Offsetting is not enough and ‘Carbon Neutral’ labeled events must not become the goal. Event planners and owners must do more.

One of the lessons from COP15 is the need for all actors to immediately commit to reducing emissions. The meetings industry, like other industries, must measure their Greenhouse Gas emissions and collaborate with respective stakeholders to set agressive goals to reduce total emissions while pursuing effective carbon sequestration, investment in–and efficient usage of– non-nuclear renewable energies in an effort to become ‘Climate responsble’.

Now, that’s a worthy label by any standard.

Your thoughts?

9 Comments

  1. Mårten Lind says:

    I think it is good that you bring up this issue Michael. Claims of ‘Carbon Neutrality’ are problematic in many ways. You mentioned some scope-related problems. I would also like to bring up the historic perspective. A company may have emitted millions of tonnes of GHGs during decades, and when it one year decides to offset for the last year it suddenly has become carbon neutral. It has reached the ultimate goal in one year! Is that reasonable? One of the things that came out of COP15 was the awareness that, in order to achieve a global agreement on climate change, increasingly industrialised nations has to take responsibility for historic emissions. In that respect it is not wise that we begin to call ourselves carbon neutral.

    According to my experience, carbon offsetting is usually the first step a company takes on the road towards sustainability. Many use it as an economic incentive to e.g. increase energy efficiency and the share of renewable energy, which is good, but there is still a long journey ahead. Real carbon neutrality will involve fundamental change including new business models, new behaviour, novel products and ways of producing electricity and heat, which in the long run is far more important than our current carbon offsetting.

    I welcome a debate on this issue since bold claims of carbon neutrality risks damaging the concept of carbon offsetting, which will be a crucial element of any future ambitious climate policy. When done correctly I think carbon offsetting is an effective way of reducing poverty and emissions as well as for spreading technology and sustainable practices.

    Conclusion: I certainly think ‘climate responsible’ is the better label.

    I know there are many Swedes out there that are interested in this issue, and I recommend that you read the following text by Ellinor Eke: http://www.csripraktiken.se/2009/11/13/debattingen-ar-klimatneutral-sa-lange-man-paverkar-klimatet/

    • Michael Luehrs says:

      Thank you, Mårten. I’m not sure the new standard addresses the issue of historic emissions, but I rather doubt it will. You raise a very important dilemma for anybody interested in challenging the process or seeking to inspire others to do more: if we’re not careful, we’ll discourage people and organizations from pursuing thoughtful and strategic offsetting.
      I strongly encourage any business, or meeting planner, to measure and offset GHG emissions with the hope that it can be a gateway to more pronounced action and reduction.
      Thank you for your comment!
      I, too, welcome views on this and thoughts on how to activate planners to start being climate responsible.

  2. Hugo Kimber says:

    Hi Michael

    Carbon Neutral has for some time looked like the Emperors’ New Clothes and the fact that some companies have chosen to go “Carbon Positive” highlights the weakness in using offsets to deliver this new environmental state of grace, whilst emitting on a business as usual basis.

    As someone who has been saying this for a couple of years I am convinced that if we continue to use terms like this, even supported by a new standard, we will not carry the rational majority with us and thereby retard real action on emissions and climate change.

    Experienced practitioners like you and your contributors are all aware of the relative value of offset as part of a wider reduction programme and not a stand alone single solution. However, the vast majority of the events industry are still at the early stage of enagement in carbon and sustainability, a confusing landscape in which they cling to the big and simple messages, of which unfortunately offset is one.

    Climate responsible is gaining currency – we have always used Carbon Responsible which implies responsibility for emissions and reduction as opposed to the illusory neutrality claim. It is possible that the Climate Responsible tag may have traction, but it requires at least some understanding of the link between GHG creation and climate patterns.

    As the snow brings the UK to a halt, many feel that this negates the doom messages about global warming, a symptom of low levels of understanding that are a key challenge for us all in promoting lower carbon and sustainable events. This challenge is made greater by the perceived failure of Copenhagen and the idea that emissions are a governmental, not individual and corporate responsibility also.

    Your suggestion that at least offset may lead to greater engagement was an argument that I bought three years ago, but not today. A tsunami of greenwash, with offset at its heart, has undermined the notion of offset purchase as a springboard to reduction. It has certainly helped awareness, but the curse of awareness is that it has been shown to lead to more aspiration and less achievement. Only in a tight regulatory environment may we expect some link between offset and reduction and this will be cost based.

    • Michael Luehrs says:

      Regulation! Wow.
      Readers, this assessment comes from a guy I know to be both level headed and a foremost authority in this space of carbon responsibility, especially for the travel and meetings industries.
      Businesses? Event Owners? Does it take government to get you to take responsibility? That’s a bit like expecting your mom to clean up your room.
      Governments didn’t exactly deliver in Copenhagen. Can this really be the solution?
      Businesses??

  3. Hugo Kimber says:

    Fair point Michael on mom cleaning up your bedroom (mine didnt!). I am not an advocate of regulation as the best driver BUT in relation to offset and reduction the link will be stronger in a non voluntary environment.
    In general the pace of overall emissions reduction, recession notwithstanding, has been low in a predomnantly voluntary environment and this trajectory will not keep us under two degrees. The varying views of governments at Copenhagen shows the problems of creating a regulatory environment, but regulation is inevitable in this area. I could not be happier than to see the meetings and travel industry rise to the challenge on a voluntary basis, but despite some encouraging signs in the meetings industry, carbon reduction and sustainability is still at base camp equivalent with a full mountain to climb in a short time.

  4. Dear Michael,

    You are so right!

    Carbon Offsetting is OK as long as we remember what it is – namely a way to make the size of ones problem visible!

    It must never be seen as the solution!

    The only way ahead as I see it, is SAVE&CHANGE – save on energy and change from fossil to renewable!

    Both as a professional people and as individuals we need to remember this!

    Sustainable regards

    JP

    • Michael Luehrs says:

      ‘Save and Change’. nice! Your characteristically succinct and wise insight captures 2 of the key themes here.
      I assert that the terms we use (‘carbon neutral’ in this case) matter a great deal and provide perspective of how engaged we are as people and businesses.
      Given that we’re a little late to the party to eliminate this misleading and empty term from industry lexicons (and hoping that Pas 2060 can somehow infuse the term with some integrity), what are practical ways that businesses and event planners can comply with the guidance outlined here, especially given the real barriers of time and money?
      Offsetting is confusing and, when people choose incorrectly, they risk compromising their good intentions.
      Further, what of the need to remove carbon presently in our atmosphere?
      What of the need to approach sustainability (for events, for businesses) not in a tactical, piecemeal way but in a systematic, holistic way (not just climate responsibility but a balanced approach focused on the reduction of waste and social benefit to the host community.. thank you Paul–)?
      Are we missing the forest for the trees?
      Must we first master basic measurement (of emissions, of waste, of water use) before we can tackle complex systems thinking?
      Experts and voices of business, we look forward to your input!

  5. The problem with phrases and labels such as ‘Carbon Neutral’ and ‘Environmentally Friendly’ is that they quickly become eroded. From a starting point with the best of intents, they are hijacked by less stringent actors and move into the greenwash domain. This make them become hollow and without meaning. Still, as you point out Michael, sustainability issues are very complex and involve a lot of parameters. When a responsible business wants to communicate their sustainability efforts, they need easy and simple catch phrases to get their message across. Therefore, standards and independent verifiers have an important role, and I welcome the new ‘Carbon Neutral’ standard that you mentioned.

    With that said, we need to dare to go beyond standards and established ways of thinking, otherwise we will get stuck in old ways of doing things. You mentioned the need of removing carbon from the atmosphere, something that we at Biorecro (www.biorecro.com) are pursuing actively. To achieve that, we must go beyond the existing standards and set much higher aspirations for carbon management than is possible with more established ways of doing things.

    • Michael Luehrs says:

      Fantastic, Henrik, thank you for that. “Yes” on all counts. This topic of removing carbon from the atmosphere is a new and exciting and, in an industry just awakening to the idea of measuring climate destabilizing emissions, it is wildly bewildering.
      The Biorecro initiative is especially interesting… very, very exciting. I look forward to seeing this in action as part of a way for businesses and events to show commitment and action to becoming ‘climate responsible’ Readers, look for more about this exciting carbon sequestration initiative soon. Good stuff, thank you!

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