There are few 'buzz' phrases nowadays with more business pertinence than carbon offsetting - that is, the concept of reducing the impact of carbon dioxide emissions from everyday activities by donating to an initiative that reduces carbon by the equivalent amount.
Companies large and small are being forced to reduce and even erase their carbon footprint as the government introduces standards to this effect. A company's 'green image' can go further than ever before to ensure its success within the increasingly competitive carbon revolution. The most obvious example in the UK might be Marks and Spencer's £200m plan to go carbon neutral through the purchase of carbon credits.
Even the general public's realisation that carbon offsetting extends beyond the purchase of credits to compensate for personal air travel is increasing (due largely to the furore over Tony Blair's initial refusal to offset the carbon from his family holiday).
The reality is that we are living in a greener and greener world, and many companies will have to reduce their carbon footprint to improve their green image or risk being crushed under legislation and the weight of public disapproval (think how quickly the smoking ban is making outcasts of public chuffers).
But while the concept of carbon offsetting is irrefutably noble, there are mitigating factors to take into consideration.
Environmental campaigners like Friends of the Earth say the principles behind carbon offsetting send out the wrong message, and do not recommend it for a number of reasons. On FoE's website the organization says it is "becoming increasingly concerned that carbon offsetting is being used as a smokescreen to ward off legislation and delay the urgent action needed to cut emissions and develop alternative low-carbon solutions." In other words carbon offsetting lulls consumers into believing they have taken positive action and are therefore fine to continue producing the same levels of carbon they have been doing.
The head of Greenpeace's energy campaign, Charlie Kronick, says: "Scientists warn we need to slash our carbon emissions, but there is a risk that the fashion for off-setting could actually encourage people to take unnecessary journeys."
Could the "smokescreen" of carbon offsetting be intended to avoid the proper development of low-carbon technologies? DEFRA says not: "Offsetting projects, such as those approved by the United Nations, provide a mechanism for investment in clean technology in the areas which lack it the most. Such investment can lead to the spread of low-carbon development across entire regions..." And Environment Minister David Miliband admits that "offsetting isn't the answer to climate change," urging individuals and companies to first think about how they can avoid and reduce emissions. He does however insist that offsetting is a useful way to deal with those emissions that can't be avoided.
There are other circumstances to take into account, such as 'false offsetting' ie offsetting done in good faith but which actually has little or no effect due to a poor understanding of the principles involved. For example, Kirsty Clough of the World Wildlife Fund says: "Buying forestry offsets does nothing to lessen society's dependence on fossil fuels, something that is ultimately needed to address climate change."
In April 2007 an investigation by the Financial Times into the voluntary, unregulated carbon offsets industry revealed widespread occurrences of individuals and organisations investing in worthless credits that did nothing to reduce emissions at all a concept that has been dubbed 'greenwashing'. Whether this was thanks to dodgy brokers, a lack of verification (making it impossible to gauge the true value of carbon credits) or redundant offsets is irrelevant - many types of offset are difficult to verify. Some providers have begun to obtain independent certification that their carbon credits are accurately measured to distance themselves from fraudulent competitors. These include Pure, the Clean Planet Trust, Global Cool, Equiclimate and Carbon Offsets.
In January 2007 the government announced that Britain was aiming to be the first country to introduce a compulsory European accreditation scheme for carbon offset projects. But until there are uniform regulations in the voluntary industry in place, it will be almost impossible to ascertain the benefits of carbon offsetting. The general consensus, outside of government institutions that are being funded to promote the effectiveness of carbon offsetting, is that businesses large and small should be looking for alternative ways to negate their carbon footprint at the source, and only offsetting when all other avenues have been exhausted.