Is saving persuasive?

Peter Martin

An Energy Manager recently suggested that building services should be automated wherever possible - and that building users would then be persuaded by the need to take cost-saving actions. But was he right?

As a building services engineer it was not surprising that he would focus on technology and control. As a budget holder it was not surprising that he considered costs would be the best way to drive the actions of others.

In his ideal world, technology would be optimised and every person would work like clockwork. But in my experience buildings – even new ones – rarely work like that; and people never do. So often, equipment turns out to be under-specified, over-engineered, inappropriately calibrated or inadequately maintained; FM contracts emphasise client comfort over energy efficiency, the use of spaces can change and building users – who are fickle at the best of times – develop new and different aims and expectations.

On many occasions I’ve seen simple malfunctions: the lights come on when someone leaves, enforced IT shutdowns disrupt important work, the ongoing air conditioning of empty workspaces. These kinds of things are sometimes isolated one-off incidents but often they continue over days, weeks and months and even prompt ill feeling towards Estate Departments.

Many organisations do aspire to sustainability and environmental improvement. Individuals often share such goals. The values that people hold tend to be deep-rooted and thus potentially a sound foundation for long-term practice. People also like to feel involved and able to make a difference.

At the time when this conversation took place, we were working with environmental champions in another organisation. They barely mentioned saving costs. Their self-declared reasons for taking on the role were concerns about future generations, helping others and making a contribution.

By supporting and nurturing such values and their expression at work, employers can deepen the positive engagement of the workforce, potentially achieving an alignment of personal and organisational efficiencies in practice.

When people feel that automated systems impose on them or constrain their ability to make their own decisions, the potential for a shared cause can be eroded and any interest in saving costs – which tends to be a concern only amongst budget holders – is undermined.

Energy Managers might be comfortable with investing in engineering and technology but sometimes they need help to understand how best to proactively engage with building users. Only when they cease making assumptions about users’ motivations, assess the drawbacks as well as the potential of automation, and take a more holistic approach to measuring benefits, will they achieve optimum results - including the efficiencies that only people can deliver.

Towards climate action

Peter Martin

Despite decades of warnings from scientists and environmentalists, the unsustainable exploitation of natural resources continues. We are locked in to ways of living and working that impede change.

Most environmental damage remains unseen from day to day and goes unheeded until cumulative effects trigger some kind of step change in the world around us such as extreme weather, floods, crop loss, ill health, migration or the extinction of species.

During the next two weeks, a campaign of civil disobedience will see protests against fossil fuel projects in many countries around the world.

Caught between the warnings of scientists and environmental campaigners on one hand and immutable economic and industrial systems on the other, even the champions within organisations can struggle to resolve conflicting aims. Those around them can become jaded. A fresh look and new insights are needed to rekindle interest.

Intriguing head office installation for Environment Day

Intriguing head office installation for Environment Day

In organisations, the scope for change is often even more constrained: effort is trammelled into defined roles and goals, exacerbated by the unspoken fears often associated with questioning the status quo or stepping out of line. And yet the need to gain impetus becomes ever more urgent. So how can you succeed in these circumstances?

Multi-stakeholder conversations help mutual understanding

Multi-stakeholder conversations help mutual understanding

The first step is to find a way to gain attention. While stark warnings and scare stories remain widely used, they rarely engender a positive response. An interactive face-to-face workplace event that invites involvement can be more effective. This can be enhanced with skilled facilitation, the use of images such as the Pictures of Success and also by bringing data to life with the unique science-based visual approach developed by Carbon Visuals and being taken forward by Real World Visuals.

A striking image can provoke interest.  One day's world carbon dioxide emissions (2012 average = 106,902,955 tonnes) shown by volume over New York. Image: Carbon Visuals 

A striking image can provoke interest.

One day's world carbon dioxide emissions (2012 average = 106,902,955 tonnes) shown by volume over New York. Image: Carbon Visuals 

Get in touch to find out how we could help to build momentum for action in your organisation.

In the dark

Peter Martin

Earth Hour doesn't claim to be an energy or carbon reduction exercise. It is a symbolic action to encourage individuals, businesses and governments to be accountable for their ecological footprint and to work together to find solutions to environmental challenges.

Earth Hour launched in Sydney in 2007 with backing from the city’s mayor. Inspired by this, San Francisco held "Lights Out" a few months later. By 2008 there was widespread participation with many landmark buildings around the world turning off non-essential lighting including the Sydney Opera House and the Empire State Building. In 2009, The United Nations observed Earth Hour at its Headquarters in New York and at other UN facilities around the world.

It provides an interesting point of reference when considering how to bring about change. Switching off the lights is a symbolic act. It also provides a direct and memorable sensory experience. It is something that people can do themselves, share with others and witness others doing. It raises awareness, creates connections with a wider community of interest and creates a bigger context for further actions. Also, critically, people join in because they want to. People take whatever actions they choose.

If you are wondering about how to engage people in your organisation, there are good principles here, far removed from the usual corporate programmes that tell people exactly what to do but in other ways leave them “in the dark”.


A longer version of this post can be found at Carbon Visuals.

Using visuals to achieve change

Peter Martin

There is 1,408.7 million cubic kilometres of water on Earth. Over 97% of it is sea-water.       Image: Adam Nieman

There is 1,408.7 million cubic kilometres of water on Earth. Over 97% of it is sea-water.       Image: Adam Nieman

Communications can serve many purposes - such as providing directions, marketing a product or promoting a brand. It is said that every picture is worth a thousand words. Images and film can have very direct effects. They can grab attention, provoke wonder and prompt questions. They can help people grasp the scale of things that might otherwise seem abstract or unimaginable and they can be powerful emotionally as well as imparting information.

When I first saw one of Adam Nieman’s pictures showing all of the water in the world. I was immediately taken with the beauty of the image and the water-like translucency of the droplet. I found myself wondering:

  • Is that ALL of the water?
  • Is it really in scale with the planet?
  • How much makes up the oceans?
  • How much is freshwater?
  • Is it a finite quantity?
  • What else sustains life on Earth?

Then I went searching for some answers.

Since that time, we have worked together on a variety of projects - from visuals for the launch of a corporate sustainability campaign aimed at changing internal office practices and behaviours to a film for government policymakers at a UN Summit.

In each case, the aims have been to catch attention, convey information, help the viewer begin to make sense of emissions, water extraction, resource use and other previously unseen ‘invisible’ interactions with the environment - and as a consequence feel more connected to the world we share, see their part in things and gain new insights.

Also, they have been intended to prompt questions and fresh thinking – whether at a personal level or to influence policymakers by sparking a reassessment of existing practices and decisions. Its a big challenge to prompt a change in behaviour at a personal level and it is gratifying when people tell us that we have succeeded in doing exactly that. On the larger scale of intergovernmental policy, even a small readjustment can have far-reaching effects.

A longer version of this blog can be found at

Data and dashboards

Peter Martin

The people charged with driving down emissions and improving energy efficiency are often specialists whose expertise lies in engineering, systems and measurements. The certainties of technical solutions allow them to calculate the return on investments. When the numbers are right, they can win support to upgrade equipment, add computing power and improve controls.

When they need to get other people to do things, however, the way forward can be less than obvious. The normal 'carrots and sticks' - incentives, recognition, embarrassment or penalties - may help drive change, but these kinds of corporate coercion can also disempower people, reducing motivation, creativity and commitment.

The first step is often to give staff data and targets - with the expectation of improvements in response. But knowing the kilowatt hours used this month, compared to last, doesn't necessarily help people to know what to do. Being faced with an emissions target for 2015 just warns them that there might be trouble ahead. More tasks and targets can even engender resentment and a reluctance to join in.

The next step is often to create a dashboard so that everyone knows, from the comfort of their own desktop, just how they are doing on energy use and emissions since last year, last week or yesterday. If employees are resting their foot on the gas pedal they may ease off for a moment but, unless they see a change right there and then, it's likely that their foot will soon be easing down again.

To actually achieve a change in 'behaviour' requires something else: emotional engagement and self-motivation. A chance for people to find their own impulse and act on it - that's the key to opening up the doors of change.

When I first became a 'change agent', I spent a morning with Charles Handy. He drew a horseshoe and told stories about how sometimes the best way from A to B is to start by going in an altogether different direction.

To help a workforce get to grips with the numbers and take action, sometimes it's best to head off into the less certain worlds of personal interests, aspirations and emotions. Visuals can be useful for this. While being true to the data, they can inspire, amaze, provoke, surprise and even shock. In the sudden search for answers, the numbers become charged with meaning. Those very same people might even ask for dashboards and data - so they too can measure progress towards a better vision.


A version of this blog was first published by Carbon Visuals with the title Data, dashboards and detours

Sustainable buildings

Peter Martin

Peter Martin's presentation to a London meeting of the UK Environmental Law Association was entitled 'No hiding place'.

In addition to Energy Performance Certificates, Display Energy Certificates and widespread use of thermal imaging, the CarbonQuilt is enabling the public to scrutinise the emissions of nations, companies and households.

                      A 'patch'of the global carbon quilt - 9.4 tonnes of carbon dioxide over Milton Keynes

                      A 'patch'of the global carbon quilt - 9.4 tonnes of carbon dioxide over Milton Keynes

Carbon Economics

Three articles by Fraser Durham

Carbon Depletion Protocol

The causes of climate change over the past 200 years can be identified quite simply as the combustion of oil, coal and gas, in addition to net deforestation. To counter these simple causes, we have created a complex financial and political solution, requiring many players and opaque accounting.

The problem is that we are trying to solve climate change by focusing our attention and solutions upon the most complex part of the system.  We are trying to measure and understand the emission profiles for millions of individuals and companies who sit at the lower part of our complex carbon system.

We are aiming our efforts at the wrong place. We need to manage the source of the carbon that comes from the few organisations and countries that extract and sell oil, gas, coal and other indirect forms of carbon release such as net deforestation.

So what do we do? We need to start challenging the assumption that our current approach is the best and most effective way.  It is clear from a systemic perspective that the simplest, most effective solution is to manage the production and sale of fossil fuel based energy, (as well as net deforestation etc) upstream.  OPEC and other major suppliers of carbon intensive fuels are certainly in a position to manage the supply – they just need to understand the importance of acting now and in a way that supports global intergenerational environmental stability and their economic viability.

The CarbonSense Foundation would like to receive funding to support an investigation into the economic impacts of a climate change solution based upon the solution as above.


Carbon for monetary debt swap

Originally posted April 28, 2009

One of the obstacles in global climate negotiations is the historic responsibility for greenhouse gases in the atmosphere: how can under-emitting countries be compensated for the prior emissions of the industrialised world?

The CarbonSense Foundation has a solution which we would like to investigate more thoroughly with academic and economic partners. Initial unfunded work, using publicly available emissions & population data, and certain assumptions about the Earth's natural capacity to absorb carbon dioxide emissions, has led us to make the following observations:

  • Between 1992 and 2007, under-emitting countries generated a carbon credit valued at approximately $1.295 trillion
  • Over the same period, over-emitting countries generated a carbon debt valued at approximately $3.9 trillion.

Three courses of action are possible:

  1. By international treaty the World could set up a means of accounting for the value of carbon debt and so arrange for the transfer of $3.9 trillion (calculated carbon debt of over emitters) into a climate change adaptation fund for use in those countries hardest hit by climate change, and
  2. The carbon credit of the under-emitting countries could be transferred into country-specific climate change adaptation funds compensating them to a value of $1.295 trillion.
  3. The carbon credit of the under-emitting countries could be accounted for in consideration of existing monetary debt, compensating for $1.295 trillion off the outstanding total of $2.5 trillion. The residual ($1.205 trillion) could be compensated for by the partial annulment of the over-emitting countries’ carbon debt.


Carbon Debt

Originally posted July 14, 2008

As the grip of the global credit crunch tightens, we should step back and learn from our mistakes in the financial markets to develop a better understanding of how to approach the gathering ecological “crunch”.

Our current global financial crisis is the result of our access to cheap debt over the past decade. This debt-fuelled binge has led to bubbles in housing, financial markets and commodities. Bubbles will inevitably be burst, forcing us to remember the key lesson that we rarely acknowledge until it is too late - all debt must be repaid, and with interest.

The size of this current economic problem is expected to be enormous. Figures in the order of $500bn are mentioned with significant implications for the efficient functioning of our global economy.

How far will it go? When will it end? That we cannot determine, yet one thing is certain – it will be painful, and will continue for some time. However, this economic episode should be embraced as a way for us to learn from experience the issues associated with the accumulation of significant levels of cheap debt. It should be a warning to us that in future we must be extra vigilant about the creation and repayment of debt that is beyond our current and future means.

Hence, with the experience of the credit crisis still fresh in our minds and the development of a wider understanding of the ramifications of cheap, excessive debt it is almost inconceivable that we would not respond to the issue of climate change - the issue for us to deal with in the coming years, which is based upon cheap, excessive carbon debt.

We have been borrowing the Earth’s resources for almost two centuries, and the consequences of this burgeoning carbon debt are starting to show as our Earth’s dynamic system responds. The Earth has been (and is) our ecological banker. We have been extracting the earth’s capital in the form of oil, coal, gas and deforestation since c. 1750 to fuel our economic growth. However, the strains are showing on the natural balance sheet. This cannot continue without the Earth raising the interest to be repaid and starting to ask for some of the capital to be returned. Given the amount of time that has passed since this process of extraction began, we have some serious interest to repay. We are heavily in debt to the Earth.

The debt is quite simple to understand. Given the number of people on our planet, the Earth only has the natural capability to absorb and extract less than 1 tonne of carbon dioxide per person per year from the atmosphere and our oceans. Yet the global average is 4 tonnes, implying that our current carbon debt is over 3 tonnes per person per year – having accumulated to enormous proportions over the past two and a half centuries. It is also worth noting that this carbon debt profile is not evenly distributed. America and Britain are responsible for between 10 and 20 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person per year, whilst in some parts of the world such as Bangladesh and sub-Saharan Africa, the per capita emissions are closer to zero.

Our carbon debt has interest, and unlike monetary debt, we cannot just write it off. We must live with the consequences. Our carbon debt is a far more permanent and wide-ranging form of debt than its monetary counterpart. The current interest on this carbon debt is our commitment to a 2 deg Celsius increase in our global average surface temperature causing glacial melt and the resultant issues of fresh water shortages, river flooding; rising sea levels and coastal flooding; species extinction and much more.

To repay our debt, we need to reduce our use of the Earth’s carbon resources to below 1 tonne per person, to both abate the worst natural effects of our carbon debt binge, and to minimise the economic consequences.

Sir Nicholas Stern warned in 2006 that early action to repay this debt by reducing our dependency upon carbon intensive fossil fuels and their resultant emissions would only cost approximately 1% of GDP per year. This equates to almost $600bn a year – a cost equivalent to the size of our current global credit crunch every year!

This may sound large, but the cost of inaction could be far greater – between $3trn and $12trn a year. These figures make our current credit crisis a walk in the park, and Sir Nicholas Stern recently said that he felt he had underestimated the risks.

So, what are we to do? Will we learn from our current debt-fuelled credit crisis and understand that we need to create a system now to define the repayment of our carbon debt over the coming years, so as to minimise the future effects? Or, will we replay the same script as our current credit crisis, and ignore the warnings that we are living beyond our means and keep going until our natural bank, the Earth, says “Sorry, no more! I have nothing more to give and I’m going to have to change the rules of the game significantly to account for our past dealings – get hotter and make it difficult for humans to continue living as you live.”

For me the answer is clear. We need to be diligent. We need to understand our carbon debt and start mapping out now how to repay the natural capital and interest that will avert the dangers we are being warned about.

Do we really want to burden our children with the excesses of our carbon debt-fuelled lives?
It’s our responsibility to enable our future generations to live free of carbon debt.

See also Fraser's film on holistic eco-nomics here.

The Carbon Quilt

Antony Turner

A 'patch' of the global carbon quilt over Great Britain

A 'patch' of the global carbon quilt over Great Britain

The Carbon Quilt is a universal tool to make greenhouse gases visible, in a way that is useful and meaningful for monitoring, policy development, international negotiation and public communication.

It uses a computer graphics technique which is scaleable, accurate and fair.

The core benefits are as follow:

• brings to life the abstract concept of a ‘carbon footprint’
• is scientifically accurate – shows actual size and area of any GHG quantity
• works on all scales – people can ‘see’ the carbon footprint of a whole continent or a single light bulb
• can show historical and future carbon emissions, with consequential temperature, sealevel and other local and global impacts
• when animated, can be used to tell any ‘carbon story’.

Our aim immediate aim is for the Carbon Quilt to make a significant contribution to the UN climate negotiations at Copenhagen in December 2009, and to influence the effectiveness of campaigns, communications, negotiations and policy development in the run-up to the summit. We have developed a prototype web tool which you can find at


The Carbon Journey

Peter Martin

Carbon Journey.jpg

Since creating the Carbon Journey framework in 2005 we have helped many organisations develop a carbon strategy. The Carbon Journey can also be used by investors to benchmark corporate performance. By combining process and targets, it helps planning, measuring results and avoiding false goals.

Benchmarking Carbon Strategies

Peter Martin


How is your business positioned against others in your sector and with leaders elsewhere? Where are the opportunities, the leverage, and the vulnerabilities?

Feedback in the UK and Europe has proved that our unique Carbon Journey tools cut through the carbon-babble and marketing spin, so that top level decisions can be made in the boardroom with confidence.

Developing Carbon Literacy

Antony Turner

The most important task now facing human society is simple and clear – getting around a
billion people ‘carbon literate’ within five years. We need to move on from talking about
climate change - the story is told. If we carry on with ‘business as usual’ we will adversely
change the planet we live on within the lives of generations now being born. Humanity is in
for a rough ride unless we embed ‘carbon literacy’ in the DNA of the people and institutions
on the planet who emit more greenhouse gases than nature can absorb.

What is carbon literacy?
Every entity (person, organisation, community or country) needs to know the basic carbon
maths, how much they are individually responsible for, and what parts of their lives are the
highest emitting. This has not been possible up to now for one very simple reason – the
invisibility of the gas itself, and the invisibility of greenhouse gases in the landscape of our

The majority of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions come from the activities and lifestyles of
the highest earners – around a billion people worldwide. This is not about blame or making
them feel bad – just a matter of education. In reality this can be relatively simple.

Why is carbon literacy essential?
There are several reasons – we don’t have much time, governments will need a mandate
from society at large, and most importantly human creativity needs to be unleashed for this
most massive challenge.

We don’t have much time
The emerging science is telling us we need to rapidly slow down the emission of greenhouse
gases to the atmosphere – every day we release around 80 million tonnes of invisible carbon
dioxide. We have a matter of a few years in which to hugely shift away from our dependence
on fossil fuels.

Political mandate
Another reason for societal carbon literacy is the need for political mandate. Policy measures
will have to be taken by governments around the world which may be unpopular unless
people genuinely understand the rationale behind the changes. We have been living, for the
last thirty years, in an era of very cheap energy. There has been no real incentive to save energy, or inhibit mass travel, as the fossil fuels have been abundant and inexpensive.

That is now changing, not just because oil supplies may be peaking, thus doubling the oil price in
the last year. Governments are recognising that carbon emissions themselves must be capped so carbon will in effect be priced – the market will start to incentivise a low-carbon future.

The need for creativity
The third and perhaps most important reason for carbon literacy is the need for creativity to
crack the problem. Climate change is unique as a ‘problem’ in that we are all involved.
Almost every person on the planet, to some degree, is contributing to the build-up of
greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. We cannot just rely on governments and business to
deliver solutions.

Some of the solutions are high-tech, and the input of the average consumer will not be required. But many ways of minimising carbon emissions are low-tech, or may just require shifts in behaviour and thinking. House insulation is a good example of a low-tech solution which can save unnecessary carbon emissions – there are still a million homes in the UK which could have cavity walls insulated.

Once we get a carbon literate eye we see examples of unnecessary waste everywhere.

Other solutions will require behavioural changes. Will it be a good idea to choose a job fifty
miles from home in a low-carbon world? Could current journeys be shared with others? And
once the imperative for a low-carbon future becomes apparent, unimaginable business
opportunities will appear that help consumers and businesses with the shift.

How do we achieve carbon literacy?
The core of the problem is the invisibility of the greenhouse gases. We have cleaned up our
act locally – we don’t normally see black smoke coming from our chimneys and exhausts.
But CO2 is invisible, and the reality is that the ‘cleanest’ power stations, planes or cars still
emit huge quantities. It may not be possible to make the actual gases ‘visible’ but we can
make carbon visible in the transactions we undertake that have carbon emission

Schumacher College. Photo: William Thomas

Schumacher College. Photo: William Thomas

Short films

Here are some of our short films

Kick the Carbon Habit
A short presentation by CarbonSense that you can show in your offices on a big screen to try and communicate the kind of things people can do to kick the carbon habit on World Environment Day and beyond. We can add music and other bits upon request.
Watch the video on YouTube (opens in a new window)

Carbon Weevils - Forkbeard Fantasy
A revamped HD version of this seven minute animated video by Forkbeard Fantasy that CarbonSense helped with. One that everyone should watch! The tale of this inexhaustible little species which seems to serve no other evolutionary purpose than to re-release the Earth's Carbon and turn it into Carbon Dioxide.
Watch the video on YouTube (opens in a new window)

Climate Change - Looking for Leadership
A short video that aims to show people that current policies are woefully inadequate and that we need vision and leadership to solve this problem.
Watch the video on YouTube (opens in a new window)

Climate Change Responsibility
A short video that briefly discusses levels of climate responsibility.
Watch the video on YouTube (opens in a new window)

Understanding Climate Change
A 3 minute film that should help you to "get" climate change quickly. We call this the elevator pitch on climate change.
Watch the video on YouTube (opens in a new window)

Developing Carbon Resilience
A 10 minute film about some of the issues that will help you understand how to become more resilient to climate change and energy security.
Watch the video on YouTube (opens in a new window)

Carbon Positive Awards

Antony Turner

Antony Turner was one of the judges for today’s South West Carbon Positive Awards at HRH The Prince of Wales’ Mayday Business Summit at the Met Office, Exeter.

Antony commented: “To demonstrate leadership in the face of the climate challenge, it will be critical for businesses and other organisations to become more sustainable. There were almost a hundred entries for the Carbon Positive Awards, with many exciting and inspiring stories. They illustrate the way forward for the South West and also for organisations throughout the UK and beyond.”

Winners included Commercial Group, Wessex Water, Who Cares Ltd, Kensa Engineering, Dyson and Knowle West Media Centre.

Peter Martin, Research Director at CarbonSense, said: “We've been advising business and industry on climate change strategy for the past five years, and since 2005 we have been helping companies to become ‘carbon positive’. This means setting strategies and encouraging all employees to get involved. As well as reducing emissions and managing carbon throughout the supply chain, this involves actively engaging other stakeholders – customers, investors and regulators in the effort to bring emissions down”.

He commented “These awards demonstrate not only that large companies can aim for sustainability but that small companies and micro-businesses can also make a difference; and that a positive approach by public bodies can facilitate progress.”

Beyond Carbon Neutral

Peter Martin

In recent years, the climate challenge has appeared in ever sharper relief. Some scientists now advise that to stabilise the climate we need to aim for an atmospheric CO2 concentration much below the current level. Some studies even suggest it will be necessary to stop emissions altogether.

In 2005, CarbonSense coined the term ‘carbon positive’ and suggested businesses should count carbon; manage decarbonisation; update their business models; engage all stakeholders; and aim for low carbon leadership. Now, there are growing calls not only for ‘low carbon’ but also for a ‘carbon removal’ economy.

Offsetting may appear to provide one way forward. However, the associated carbon accounting is based on a host of assumptions that do not stand up to scrutiny. Companies’ claims to be ‘carbon neutral’ often amount to little more than greenwash and this kind of conscience-salving distraction is not a sufficient aim for any responsible business.

While banks, traders and offset vendors continue to jump on the carbon neutral bandwagon, some other companies are starting to frame their objectives in terms of zero carbon. It is essential that we recognise and learn from false ‘solutions’ and develop the kinds of leadership that the climate challenge demands.


Offsetting is offputting

Peter Martin

In our efforts to deal with climate change, carbon offsetting is not the panacea that some people imagine.

The Environmental Audit Committee has missed a good opportunity to fully reappraise the practice of offsetting - its drawbacks as well as its benefits. While the airlines' efforts are criticised in its latest report and the practice of offsetting is widely encouraged, the flaws that undermine its value as a method of combating climate change are skipped over.

I am concerned by the comment from Tim Yeo, the committee's chairman, that "the UK's financial and carbon markets have much to gain from a rapid growth in this field". This, coupled the fact that many of the external contributors to the committee have a vested interest in offsetting, give the impression that the UK's financial interests have been given priority over the need for effective emission reductions for all of us on the planet.

Here at CarbonSense, we've been advising business and industry on climate change strategy for the past five years, and, while we have backed offsetting in the past we now view it as an inadequate strategy. The fact that it has become so fashionable also means it is diverting attention from more effective strategies.

For the consequences of climate change to be reduced, business, industry and utilities must rapidly move to revise practices on a global scale. Any business's primary focus when drawing up a climate change strategy should be to seek ways to reduce its own carbon emissions, and we must not encourage businesses, individuals or governments to effectively buy themselves a licence to continue damaging the atmosphere.

Few seem to understand that any carbon emitted into the atmosphere persists, and will cause global warming for years and decades to come, and these emissions will not be adequately compensated for, or negated, by giving money to an offsetting project.

There has been much debate recently as to whether offsetting works, and the report provides a valuable review of some of the key questions. But some fundamental issues have been downplayed or ignored.

One big problem is the 'time' factor. For instance, you cannot offset the emissions of a few hours' flying by installing low-energy lightbulbs in a developing country when the calculations are based on a carbon benefit being achieved over one full year, or possibly the entire lifetime of the bulbs.

Global warming is not a future possibility; it is happening, and needs to be acted on immediately. To call such an inadequate fix "carbon neutral" is disingenuous.

It's also very difficult to calculate the size of an amount of carbon, and the "counting" methods used at the moment are unsatisfactory. So how can you genuinely assess either the amount that you are releasing into the atmosphere, or that which your offsetting project claims it will reduce?

The nature of carbon changes as time goes by, so effectively, there are various different types of carbon - or "carbon cycles" - and yet, in the offsetting world, they are often presented as the same. From a scientific point of view it is misleading to claim that you can effectively "counter out" a fossil fuel emission released by a plane (termed as "geological" carbon), by supporting a project that focuses on reduction by using the "biological" cycle (i.e. by planting trees).

Climate change is happening now - and fine adjustments to the deckchair of offsetting are wholly insufficient to deal with the impending challenge. For all our sakes, I hope that government will now draw on the latest science and conduct a more fundamental reappraisal of the part that offsetting should, or should not play, in its climate change strategy.

This article was first published by Guardian Unlimited July 23, 2007

Healing the Air

Antony Turner

We have the capacity to live in harmony with our planet, but we need a rapid, massive and global awakening at a personal level if we wish to avoid self-destruction.

Because the air is largely unseen, often referred to as mere 'empty space', we don't even notice it. We believe that the atmosphere is a 'dead' and accidental mixture of inert gases. We forget that the air that we breathe and share has been built up over billions of years by bacteria, to support and sustain our living planet.

We need reminding that carbon has continuously been sucked out of the atmosphere and buried in limestone, chalk, coal, oil and gas deposits by huge natural processes in order for life to multiply and survive. Now we are reversing that process by digging and drilling huge amounts of these 'fossil fuels' from beneath the Earth's crust, then burning them in our power stations, vehicles, aircraft, and industrial processes.

The resulting increase in carbon dioxide is changing the atmosphere at "a speed and magnitude unprecedented to our knowledge, aside from large meteorite impacts", according to climate scientist Peter Barrett of the Antarctic Research Centre in New Zealand.

In the last thirty years the scientific community has made huge strides in understanding how the atmosphere works. It is now clear that carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, is exchanged between the atmosphere, the oceans and the forests in a complex dance. It is undisputed that we are belching twice as much of this unseen gas into the atmosphere as natural sinks like forests and oceans can absorb. The result is global warming, increased extreme climate 'events', more flooding, longer droughts and rising sea levels. There is even the possibility of dramatic changes like the collapse of the Gulf Stream.

But regrettably the basic understanding of the carbon cycle is unknown to most people. Although we are aware of climate change, in reality we make little connection to our own energy-profligate lives, both personally and in the workplace. Our links with the natural world have broken down.

So what is to be done to heal the air? How can we start to live within the constraints of the only living planet we know? I believe there are four key actions which need to be taken:

• Greenhouse gas targets must be set by the scientists.
• A low-carbon culture must be introduced.
• Everything should be carbon-labelled.
• Carbon must become the currency of the twenty-first century.


The targets set at Kyoto by the political community might be a useful first step. But if these are set within a framework of political negotiations they will only scratch the surface. As Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation says, "You don't negotiate how far to build a bridge across a canyon." Nevertheless the UK government has shown genuine leadership by setting a 60% reduction target for CO2 by 2050. Unfortunately the latest predictions from the UK's Hadley Centre suggest that even the UK target is not sufficient.

I believe therefore that we will not succeed in this task without getting climate scientists themselves, without interference from outside vested interests and politicians, to set targets which will protect the atmosphere.

Culture change

We need a rapid culture change around the globe, sparked by a huge communication initiative which is transformed by a new way of seeing ourselves within rather than outside the environment. The biologist E. O. Wilson writes: "The more closely we identify ourselves with the rest of life, the more quickly we will be able to discover the sources of human sensibility and acquire the knowledge on which an enduring ethic, a sense of preferred direction, can be built." If the world can be persuaded by advertising and marketing to buy Coca-Cola or Nike, surely those same resources can be used to get this message across.

Carbon labelling

A key way to make the culture change easier is for people to be aware of the carbon content in goods and services that they buy. Within months of mandatory CO2/km labels on new cars in the UK every manager in the country was aware of the carbon-implications of their vehicle fleet. Tax bands are now based on these figures, giving incentives to drivers to opt for the most efficient vehicles. There is no reason why every rail and air travel ticket shouldn't show a CO2 figure. Buildings, which account for 50% of our carbon emissions, should be rated just like refrigerators and freezers. Landlords neglecting to insulate their existing buildings efficiently, or to build low-carbon new buildings, would be penalised by the marketplace. Carbon labels need to be as common as barcodes.

Carbon as currency

The final plank in the transition to a genuinely low-carbon future will take place when we invent a new currency. A recent report, Carbon UK, says that "carbon will be the currency of the coming age." Although carbon trading is starting to happen with large commercial energy users, it needs to happen at a personal level too. I believe that every person on the planet should be issued with a carbon allocation. What could be fairer? If a person wishes to jet off to distant sunspots or drive a huge car, that's fine. They'll just have to pay the going rate for someone else's carbon - there will be plenty of people in the Third World who would be happy to sell their allocations at the market rate.

This is similar to the concept of 'contraction and convergence', devised by Aubrey Meyer of The Global Commons Institute, but worked through banks and NGOs at a personal rather than governmental level.

Ultimately we have to rethink our attitude and our relationship to this planet. We can never "hold dominion" over nature as Descartes believed. We need a new relationship based on reverence for the natural world. The transition to a low-carbon future can be creative and fun. James Lovelock, in his book Gaia - the practical science of planetary medicine, has likened industrial human behaviour to that of a pathogenic micro-organism. He points out: "We have grown in numbers to the point where our presence is perceptibly disabling the planet like a disease. As in human diseases there are four possible outcomes: destruction of the invading disease organisms; chronic infection; destruction of the host; or symbiosis - a lasting relationship of mutual benefit to the host and invader."

I believe that we have the capacity to choose symbiosis over self-destruction. But we need a rapid, massive and global awakening at a personal level if we are not to go the way of any disease successfully thwarted by its host.

This article was first published in Resurgence 224, May – June 2004