Greenwashing: Its Not Easy Being Green
| Sunday, 10 February 2008



Program looking at problems with the voluntary market, with Kevin Smith.

'In Europe, one of the most outspoken groups on this issue is Carbon Trade Watch. It's part of the Transnational Institute, which describes itself as a European think-tank. It's produced a report called the Carbon Neutral Myth, which attempts to debunk carbon offsetting as an effective or valuable method of tackling climate change. And it's very much at the extreme green end of this debate.'

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Source: www.abc.net.au


It's not easy being green; Kermit's lament haunts us as we are bombarded with advertising, labels and marketing promising consumers a positive outcome for the environment. How much of it is deceptive and misleading? Reporter Rachel Carbonell.

Broadcast on ABC - National Australian Radio


This transcript was typed from a recording of the program. The ABC cannot guarantee its complete accuracy because of the possibility of mishearing and occasional difficulty in identifying speakers. 

It's Not Easy Being Green

Rachel Carbonell: With the rise of global warming, more of us are trying to ease our environmental guilt with the ever-expanding number of green products on the shelves. 

The eco-economy is booming, and with it, the race to be the greenest.

Kermit: It's Kermit the Frog here, and today I'd like to tell you a little bit about the colour green. Do you know what's green? Well I am, for one thing. You see, frogs are green, and I'm a frog, and that means I'm green, you see.

SINGS: It's not that easy been green

Rachel Carbonell: Kermit the Frog was probably right, but you wouldn't think so, from the amount of green advertising around us. You can get green broadband, green electricity, green car and green wine bottles. Women's magazines, like Cleo are even doing features on how to green up your sex life.

Reader: The Green sex commandments, five bedroom rules to live by for the good of the planet and your libido.

Rachel Carbonell: The hints are things like switch off the lights, and shower together. More surprising was the section on enviro-friendly sex toys, like the solar powered vibrator.

Hello, I'm Rachel Carbonell and this week Radio National's Background Briefing is hunting for the lies that are springing up in the grab for the green dollar.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is also on the case. Chairman, Graeme Samuel, has overseen a bit spike in complaints and inquiries about green marketing.

Graeme Samuel: What I can say to you is that if you'd asked me a year ago, 18 months ago, the level of complaint, I would have said it was almost non-existent. It's fair to say that it's now appearing as a fairly regular blip on the radar screen.

Rachel Carbonell: False or misleading environmental advertising, or 'green washing' as it's often called, is well and truly on the consumer radar. And a short stroll around the supermarket aisles starts to give an indication of why.

Well here I am in the cleaning products section of an ordinary suburban supermarket, and already I've come across a pretty big list of claims. There's biodegradable, sustainable, ecological, chemical free, low chemical formula, phosphate free, recyclable, eco-friendly, earth friendly, environmentally friendly, non toxic, ozone friendly; it's quite overwhelming when you really pay close attention to all the claims that are on the shelves. 

So how do we know if these products are living up to their hype?

Background Briefing selected a range of products, some dishwashing liquids and laundry detergents, as well as some shampoos and conditions. We put them in a box and sent them to chemistry guru, Ben Selinger, in Canberra, to help us make sense of them. He's an Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University and chaired many of the standards committees that set the bottom line for these products in the 1970s.

Professor Selinger says the ingredient lists that have begun to appear on these products are unlikely to help consumers, because it's hard to make sense of them.

Ben Selinger: I think it's virtually impossible. Even the products which have ingredients on them, often they're sort of pseudochemical names, which can be anything really, they're not strictly chemical names. And secondly you don't know how much is in there. I mean you can have a good active in a product, but very little of it. I find it difficult myself. I make educated guesses from what I know of the chemistry of these products, but it's almost impossible, and for most people the ingredient label is useless. 

Rachel Carbonell: It's not an encouraging start, but we begin sorting through our pile of products anyway, to see what sense we can make of them. We're comparing a selection of laundry detergents and dishwashing liquids, starting with a specialist environmental brand that can only be purchased from dedicated environment and health food shops.

Ben Selinger: This has coco-betain, which looks like the only ingredient that's chemically made that could be a surfactant. But I'd be guessing. Organic soapwort is probably an extractable vegetable product which has some detergent action, and the rest I would say this would make a rather nice bath oil rather than a laundry detergent, that'd be my reaction to that list of ingredients.

Rachel Carbonell: Professor Selinger has some concerns about its environmental performance.

Like most cleaning products of this type, it contains salt, a bit of a filler to thicken it up. Other than the fact that it advertises that it has no fillers, this is a potential problem for your garden if you're planning to use the greywater from your washing machine. It's unlikely to do much harm, but given we don't know the quantity of salt, it's probably best not to go putting it on your favourite rose bushes just yet. The brand's dishwashing liquid has an almost identical ingredient list and advertises that it's phosphate free and biodegradable. 

Ben Selinger: Dishwashing liquid doesn't need phosphate, so that's a furphy, and all of these products have to be biodegradable, so that's another furphy. 

Rachel Carbonell: Moving on, next we choose a more ordinary detergent, one that you can find on the supermarket shelves, but which also advertises itself as green. It has a lot more chemicals in it, and a lot less flowery ingredients.

Ben Selinger: This product contains the standard surfactants that the major manufacturers use, so if you look at the ingredients, it's got water, sodium alkyl aryl sulphonate, the standard surfactant, sodium laureth sulphate, also standard, cocodiethanolamide, that's another surfactant that used the coconut fat as its base rather than petroleum, triethanolamine lauryl sulphate, that's another detergent, and lauryl alcohol ethoxylate, that's a non-ionic surfactant. 

Rachel Carbonell: The list goes on, but you get the idea.

This product says it has a low salt content, and is greywater safe. But Professor Selinger says it contains boron compounds, which could pose a risk to your garden.

Ben Selinger: In fact there's a CSIRO soil expert I talked to killed his own garden re-using the washing liquid which had boron in it, which he should have known better. So there are some subtle compositional issues there. But products which say they're safe to use on the garden have to be low in sodium and not have any borax in them.

Rachel Carbonell: We asked Professor Selinger to go rummaging once more through the box of detergents we sent him. This time we want to have a look for a bog standard brand of laundry detergent, like any one you've seen advertised on TV with mums washing their kids' grimy footy gear. One that makes no environmental claims whatsoever, but instead focuses on how well it washes clothes. And we compare this last one to its 'green' supermarket competitor.

Ben Selinger: There's not much difference, I would say. I mean again, a lot of advertising is hype and puffery, and that's not unusual. Some people ask me which one I buy, I always buy the product on special. So that's my criteria. I would say the difference between these two is there, but it's not really that large to make a green decision on.

Rachel Carbonell: To summarise, the specialist green brand had salt in it, the supermarket green brand had a chemical in it that could kill your plants. And finally, the difference between the supermarket brand advertising itself as green, and its standard competitor that makes no environmental claims, is negligible. 

Ben Selinger: As a chemist and consumer I'm never happy with the amount of advertising that goes in pushing molehills into mountains, making big claims on one or two parameters, and ignoring a whole lot of other parameters. I think it's something that consumer organisations have been fighting since their inception. 

Rachel Carbonell: This kind of puffery doesn't just apply to dishwashing and laundry detergents. It can be found on all sorts of other products, too. For instance, it's commonly found advertised on soaps and hair care products.

I'm now in the shampoo and conditioner aisle of the supermarket. I'm looking for this brand of shampoo that had an ad on the TV that really stuck in my head. I think it's called Organicare, and it seems to trade on being a bit more natural than your average shampoo. Let's have a look along here. Yes, here it is. I remember now, it's got this ad on TV where the women are all working around with their hairstyles over their eyes, it's quite a strange image. 

Advertisement: Some of us are so focused on our hair that we're blinded to the fact that most shampoos are derived from crude oil. Organicare is different, it's derived from plants, so it helps keep your hair beautiful, as well as our environment. Organicare. Does your hair care?

Rachel Carbonell: It's a clever and well worded ad, and perhaps gives the impression that the product is organic and natural. But Professor Selinger says some of the ingredients, particularly in the conditioner, aren't plant-based or organic.

Rachel Carbonell: Now it works as a conditioner because it uses silicones. These are chemicals that have wide uses in commerce. They used to be used in breast implants and so on, they're used in oils and this has got dimethicone, dimethiconol and cyclopentasiloxane. Now these are three silicone-based chemicals, so it's a bit of a misnomer to say this is really organic. The ingredient that's really doing the hard yards in this product is very, very non-organic silicone-based product.

Rachel Carbonell: Of all the products that we've looked at so far, there aren't any actual lies being told. But the marketing can be distracting, and at times a little disingenuous.

Canada is a bit ahead of the game than Australia on this issue. There's a big company there that takes care of the government's eco-labelling program, and specialises in analysing green advertising. It's called TerraChoice, and it recently conducted a study into false and misleading environmental advertising, which it called the 'Six Sins of Greenwashing'. 

The company sent teams of researchers into several big national stores in Canada and the United States, to collect and analyse all the green claims they encountered.

Speaking to Background Briefing from Ottawa in Canada is Scott McDougall, the President of TerraChoice.

Scott McDougall: We found over a thousand products across these six stores, we found over a thousand products that collectively made over 1700 environmental claims, and found that almost all of them, 99% were at risk of either being false or of misleading their intended audience, and we sorted those misleading claims into patterns, which we've come to call the 'Six Sins of Greenwashing.'

Rachel Carbonell: The Six Sins of Greenwashing are: the sin of the hidden trade-off; the sin of no proof; the sin of vagueness; the sin of irrelevance; the sin of the lesser of two evils; and the sin of fibbing. We'll go into more detail about some of the more common so-called sins, shortly.

But one of the most telling revelations to come out of the Six Sins of Greenwashing, was that the sin of fibbing, or actually telling outright porkies, is the least common.

Scott McDougall: Thankfully, this was far and away the least frequent; actually accounted we found it in only ten products, or less than 1% of all the claims. Then these are sins that are simply falsehoods. It was quite a small proportion but there was enough products, ten, that we considered it a pattern. Indeed we identified it because this is what consumers are most concerned about, which is claims that are simply false.

Rachel Carbonell: So while it's out -and-out-lies that consumers are most concerned about, what this study has revealed is that most greenwashing is more insidious than that, harder to pin down and harder to define,

If we go back to the dishwashing liquids that Background Briefing was scrutinising earlier, you can see the Six Sins of Greenwashing starting to emerge. Two of the dishwashing liquids we looked at claim to be environmental. They spruiked that they were phosphate-free and biodegradable.

All dishwashing liquids are phosphate free by their nature, because it isn't required to make the product work and it would be a waste of money to put it in. And all dishwashing liquids are required by law to be biodegradable.

TerraChoice President, Scott McDougall says these claims fall into the category of the Sin of Irrelevance.

Scott McDougall: The Sin of Irrelevance is a claim that is true about the product, but doesn't actually help the consumer to understand the relative environmental disadvantages between that product and others within the category. The most frequent example, and the easiest one to find on store shelves, relates to an important pollutant called chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, and when I see a product, an aerosol or a shaving gel for example, that tells me it's CFC free, happily I know that claim is true. CFCs were banned by law from the manufacturing of all these products. So it's not useful for the marketer to claim that a product is green because it is CFC-free, since CFC-free is an absolute necessity of all the products on the shelf, and as a consequence the claim is irrelevant to the actual environmental footprint if the product category.

Rachel Carbonell: Another of the six sins that pops up regularly is the Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off.

Scott McDougall: the most common one for example, and we found this in over 57% of the claims that we recorded in the study, we called the Sin of the Hidden Trade-off. Let's use paper as an example: if I claim my paper product is green, based on just on the fact that it comes from a sustainably harvested forest, then I'm telling you something that is truthful, and is undoubtedly good, but paper is a complicated issue environmentally speaking, and the milling and manufacturing practices associated with paper also can have devastating environmental impacts, including air pollution and water pollution and climate burden and so on. So if I tell you just about one attribute, like sustainable forestry in order to draw your attention away from my less attractive performance in these other areas, then I'm like the magician drawing your attention to my left hand, so you can't see what my right hand is doing. This we call the Sin of the Hidden Trade-off.

Woman: And now we turn to a story about environmentally friendly products, and, if you're getting what you pay for.

Rachel Carbonell: The media reaction to the Six Sins of Greenwashing has been huge. This is just one example of how the American TV networks covered the story.

Man: That's right, well from the eco friendly to non toxic, consumers are bombarded these days with catchphrases related to the green movement. What do these phrases mean though, and are their claims accurate? According to a study released by environmental marketing firm, TerraChoice, they examined the products and found 99% of the labels were either false or misleading ...

Rachel Carbonell: The Six Sins of Greenwashing has hit a nerve with consumers around the world.

Scott McDougall: It has been a storm of reaction. We had underestimated just how timely this study was and just how much consumers were as we were, aware and concerned about not just the volume of green claims being made, but about their legitimacy.

Rachel Carbonell: Back in Australia, the ACCC is tapping into this consumer discontent to get leads on who is breaking the rules.


Rachel Carbonell: It's based on the 35th floor of a big office building in central Melbourne.

It is, it's almost like you could keep an eye on everybody from up here.

There's no such thing yet as laws that ban misleading green advertising. The issue falls into a grey area. But the head of the ACCC, Graeme Samuel, says that's not an impediment.

Graeme Samuel: No, but there is one area of the law, it is the most litigated section of the Trade Practices Act, and it's Section 52 which says that a corporation shall not in trade and commerce, engage in misleading and deceptive conduct. Those two words, 'misleading' and 'deceptive' are very powerful words indeed.

Rachel Carbonell: How do you go about legally defining what is deceptive when a lot of the terms that you'll be dealing with, aren't legally defined, such as 'environmentally friendly' or 'ecological'?

Graeme Samuel: Look, it's already coming across our desks at the present time, and we're starting to have to examine carefully the difference between something that is puffery and something that is deceptive or misleading. And it's not easy, because we're into a new area of analysis, a new area of consumer and business information. We see advertisements for products that are 'green'. What does it mean? What does 'green' mean? Now on those areas it's very difficult, because a lot of that is puffery.

Rachel Carbonell: Where the ACCC has more clout is when a product advertises quite specific environmental claims. So the more information a product discloses, the more it leaves itself open to litigation. Which is unfortunate for consumers baying for more details to back up the environmental claims that products are making.

Graeme Samuel's answer to this uncertainty is that businesses simply need to tell the truth, and they know when they're being truthful, and when they're not.

Graeme Samuel: Business knows what the rules are. I mean I often describe this area as a bit like a hippopotamus, very difficult to describe, but you sure know it when you see it.

Rachel Carbonell: Graeme Samuel gets his hackles up at the suggestion that companies are running their marketing material past their legal departments to see how far they can stretch the truth.

Graeme Samuel: You can have the best lawyers in the world draw lines in the sand for you, and say, 'If you cross that line, you're definitely going to go to court, you're going to get prosecuted.' I've got to say to you, even if you don't cross the line in the sand, it may well be that we'll prosecute you in court for something that your lawyer says is on the safe side, and we say frankly is not on the safe side, because in some of these areas it's a hazy line, it's not a clear line in the sand. It may be we have to test the law, but in the process of testing the law, it may well be that your reputation will also suffer damage, as the courts express their own, - what's the word - disapproval of the approach that's being adopted. 

Rachel Carbonell: The ACCC has already had some successes. It's pinged two electricity retailers with out-of-court enforcement for their environmental advertising.

It also has court proceedings under way against the distributors of Saab motor cars, alleging misleading and deceptive conduct in regard to 'green' claims made in the advertising for Saab vehicles.

So while the consumer watchdog continues to gather its arsenal, what's the hapless consumer to do? Many are looking for places that have already done the groundwork. In Melbourne, there's an environmental park called CERES, which stands for the Centre for Environment and Research into Environmental Strategies. It's a bit of a mouthful, but basically it's an old tip site in inner Melbourne, which was transformed into a community environment park about 25 years ago. It has a café, organic market, and an environmental produce shop. It's to this shop that increasing numbers of consumers are flocking.

Background Briefing dropped in to find out how Store Manager, Katie Muir, wades her way through the green claims. She too has noticed the rise in green advertising, and the increasing potential to be misled.

Katie Muir: I think it's increasing like 30% a year or something crazy like that. I mean there's a lot of money to be made in it, which is perhaps why it's becoming more commercial.

Rachel Carbonell: OK, so I'm looking behind you there and there's teas, and there's soy milk and there's kidney beans and coconut cream, and then behind both of us there's all sorts of things. There's pasta and tahini, and then all of your bulk goods, everything from rice through to dried beans. What's the importance of having a store like this? How does it differ from the sorts of things that you can go and buy at the supermarket, or from your local shops?

Katie Muir: I think it's because we make the first step in eliminating all the products that aren't what they say they are, or it makes it easier for people to come in, because they can come straight in here and know that everything that's on the shelves is either organic or locally produced, you know, we've done the first hard steps.

Rachel Carbonell: The shop sources bulk foods and cleaning products to reduce packaging, organic products, so as to minimise the use of fertilisers and pesticides, looks for sustainable manufacturing and farming operations, and attempts to buy locally produced items to reduce food miles.

But even here, the simple can become quite complicated. Say for example, if you wanted to buy a tin of organic tomatoes.

Katie Muir: Well I mean, buying Australian tinned tomatoes, you're buying it from a local source, but they're not organic. So the issues that come in there, that they're mass produced, there's land degradation and increasing water use and things that are really important in Australia at the moment.

Rachel Carbonell: So the alternative is to perhaps buy some organic tinned tomatoes that might come from Europe?

Katie Muir: Yes. Most of them come from Italy. The thing is, they've always been grown there. The ecosystem there is finely tuned for the tomatoes, and there's no land degradation going on there, there's no chemicals being put on the tomatoes, and essentially, the biggest cost is the environmental cost, is shipping them over to Australia.

Rachel Carbonell: When it comes to making these kinds of tricky environmental decisions about everyday products, even those standing firmly on environmental high ground can get caught out.

Katie Muir from CERES again. 

Katie Muir: There's nappies that I've chosen not to stock any more. And I think perhaps it's clever packaging, where they're not actually lying, and they were the best product on the market. I mean a lot of people buy them, thinking that they are biodegradable, and then they put them in their compost and they sit there for three years, and don't do anything. And then they come back to you and go, 'These aren't biodegradable', and it's like, 'Oh. Yes. No, you're right'. And it doesn't actually say they're biodegradable, it says they're environmental and that the packaging is biodegradable, and most of it's not in English. So it's really hard to make the right decision.

Rachel Carbonell: All right, well thank you, I'll let you get back to your customers.

Ah, the perennial nappy debate. All parents know the passion and judgement involved in the argument over whether cloth or disposable nappies are best for the environment. 

And with the water crisis faced by many Australian populations, the question of which nappy to use is getting more difficult to answer. Which is one of the reasons why environmental engineer, Dr Kate O'Brien, from the University of Queensland, decided to conduct the first study of its kind in Australia into the cloth versus disposable nappy debate. 

Kate O'Brien: I think it's a very polarised debate, and what I've observed is that people who use disposable nappies might accuse people who use cloth nappies as being fools, just outdated fools. And people who use cloth nappies accuse people with disposable nappies as environmental vandals. So it can be quite acrimonious at times.

Rachel Carbonell: Dr O'Brien's study is what's called a life cycle assessment, a cradle-to-grave analysis of a product. It looks at how much energy goes into making something, how much energy goes into using it, and then how much energy goes into disposing of it.

The tricky thing about life cycle assessments is working out what to include and what to leave out.

Kate O'Brien: This is one of the complexities of life cycle assessment. So if we take an example: if you wanted to work out, look over the life cycle of say a particular food that was being produced, and you wanted to determine the greenhouse gas emissions, the water and the emissions, then you'd consider the ploughing, the sowing of the seed, the harvesting, the fossil fuels used by the machinery, and any sprays or fertilisers which might be used. That's fairly clear. You'd consider the transport to market. But where would you then draw your system boundary. For instance how far back would you go? If you were using fertiliser would you consider the energy used to make that fertiliser? I think that's actually important, but would you consider the energy used to make the plant, the factory which made the fertiliser? And I think you'd draw that outside the system boundary.

Rachel Carbonell: And so what sorts of things are you including and excluding in the nappy study?

Kate O'Brien: We would include the growing of the cotton and the fossil fuels used to power the machinery involved in cotton production, but we wouldn't consider the construction of that machinery.

Rachel Carbonell: What about where the cotton comes from, whether it's grown in Australia or whether it's grown in Asia?

Kate O'Brien: Now that is indeed a bit of complexity and that's one we haven't quite resolved yet.

Rachel Carbonell: One of the most recent nappy studies of this kind was by the UK's Environment Agency, and it wasn't able to deliver an answer on whether cloth or disposable nappies are best.

It concluded that both affect the environment significantly, in different ways.

Dr O'Brien's study will be finished a bit later this year, so she can't say what her results will be just yet. But she says even if her study doesn't have any definitive answers on which is best, it'll still help people make greener nappy decisions.

Kate O'Brien: I think that the real value of the life cycle assessment is in working out where the big impacts occur. So in the case of nappies, in terms of water consumption, all the studies have concluded that cloth nappies use more water than disposable nappies, and the places where that water is consumed is in the growing of the cotton and in the washing. So if you want to reduce the water consumption associated with cloth nappies, you need to find a way of using less cotton, using cotton from a more water-efficient environment, or making your washing more efficient. So I think the real value is you may not be able to compare two products exactly, but you can ask questions like Where in the life cycle do the big impacts occur, and therefore how can we reduce our impact?

Rachel Carbonell: And Dr O'Brien says getting caught up in the nappy debate could be a problem in itself. She says with the money people get from the baby bonus in Australia, they can probably make a much bigger difference to the environment by investing in a water-efficient washing machine, or a rainwater tank, or a solar hot water system, or a compost.

Kate O'Brien: It's almost like doing a bit of carbon trading within your own house. If you use disposables and you know you're going to have a bigger landfill, then you should, if at all possible, have a compost, so that you're reducing your solid waste. I mean I think that should be part of the discussion that people have when they look at their nappies. I think when people have a baby, they think OK, the environment's all about what nappy I choose. But actually, if you look at, say the Australian greenhouse gas report for Australia, the big greenhouse gas emitters are stationary electricity transport and agriculture, so I suspect you'll get a lot more gains for the environment if you don't just talk about nappies, but think about how much energy you're using, what kind of transport you're using, what you're eating, and how much water you're consuming.

Rachel Carbonell: It seems we keep being reminded of Kermit's old motto.

KERMIT SINGS: It's not easy being green

Rachel Carbonell: It's not just environmental products that are popping up everywhere, but green businesses and green corporations.

General Electric, one of the biggest companies in the world, makes everything from power plants to medical equipment, jet engines to plastics. It got in early with the green branding, with what it calls 'Ecomagination'.

Promotion: Water that's more pure, jet engines, trains and power plants that run dramatically clean. At G.E. we're using what we call ecomagination to create technology that's right in step with nature. G.E. Imagination at Work.

Rachel Carbonell: The company says it's spending $1-1/2-billiion a year on developing new clean power initiatives and reducing its emissions.

Another international giant, petrol company BP, tried unsuccessfully to register its particular colour of green as a trademark here in Australia. 

While BP said it wasn't doing it to create positive environmental connotations, three High Court judges noted that the colour green was now very much associated with the green movement.

Promotion: Oil, energy, the environment ...

Rachel Carbonell: And around the world, oil companies are trying to improve their green image. Here's a snippet of a Chevron ad for example.

Promotion: ... that an oil company can practice and espouse conservation. Yes, we are an oil company, but right now we're also providing natural gas, solar, hydrogen, geothermal, because we live on this planet too.

Rachel Carbonell: One of the main tools used by individuals and companies wanting to 'green' themselves, is carbon offsetting. The basic idea of carbon offsetting is that if you use energy, you can make up for that by paying someone to either plant trees to absorb carbon from the atmosphere, or invest in renewable energy to make up for your energy use. 

Businesses can offset their carbon footprints, just as individuals can offset their cars, their pets, their aeroplane flights, and just about anything else that uses any kind of energy. 

And it's here that some of the greatest greenwashing may well be hiding. 

Australia doesn't have a formal carbon trading system yet, but a voluntary offset market has been operating for some time now, and it's completely unregulated. 

The new Labor government has promised to fix that, and the head of the ACCC, Graeme Samuel, has marked offsetting as a major part of the organisation's greenwashing crackdown. 

Graeme Samuel: In this area, it is scientifically complex. For example, many of the carbon offset claims and carbon neutrality claims relate to the planting of trees. That's good, and they can on first blush, be sustained as propositions. But if the trees are just planted but then are left to die through lack of irrigation for example, then what we have is a very short-term carbon offset, and more importantly, if the trees die, then my understanding is that they then emit more carbon emissions than are saved by the planting of the trees themselves. 

Rachel Carbonell: One of the issues the ACCC is looking out for is when companies contract out their carbon offsetting, which they often do. 

Companies may do this in good faith and get taken for a ride by the offset company, and get bad publicity as a result. 

In Europe, one of the most outspoken groups on this issue is Carbon Trade Watch. It's part of the Transnational Institute, which describes itself as a European think-tank. It's produced a report called the Carbon Neutral Myth, which attempts to debunk carbon offsetting as an effective or valuable method of tackling climate change. And it's very much at the extreme green end of this debate.

 Kevin Smith. 

Kevin Smith: Telling people to plant trees to deal with the problem of climate change is like telling people to drink glasses of water to deal with rising sea levels. It's not going to work, because what you're doing here is appealing to people's notion of planting trees as being inherently a good thing, and associating it with climate change. 

Rachel Carbonell: That's Kevin Smith, a researcher with Carbon Trade Watch, speaking to Background Briefing from London. He says carbon offsetting is essentially the rich paying for a licence to continue polluting, and he compares it to the Catholic church's selling of indulgences in the Middle Ages. 

Kevin Smith: Indulgences were essentially the Catholic church in the Middle Ages facing a cash crisis, turning a market-based approach to sinning. The idea was that some people had a surplus of good deeds, that is the church and the clergy, and some people had a deficit of good deeds, that is, your ordinary sinners. And the idea was that the sinners could purchase at a mark-up, the surplus good deeds from the clergy. And this was actually the cause of the Reformation because there was so much corruption involved that this was one of the things that prompted Martin Luther to nail his document to the church door and start off the Reformation. 

Rachel Carbonell: Kevin Smith argues that once you've used energy and released fossil fuels, the genie is out of the bottle, and planting trees or investing in wind farms, while good things to do in themselves, aren't going to put that oil or coal back in the ground. 

If you still don't quite get what he's driving at, then the boys behind the website 'cheat neutral' might help you get your head around it. It's a spoof website, though interestingly, some have taken it seriously, that offers cheat offsetting. 

Man: OK, well what we understand at cheatneutral.com is that cheating and jealousy are just a natural part of most modern relationships, and what we needed was a market-based solution to deal with that. 

Rachel Carbonell: Here's a bit of an online documentary about the website, where the founders take their idea to the streets. 

Girl: How much are the balloons? 

Man: They're not for sale, but you might be interested in our new company that we're launching today. It's called cheatneutral.com and what we do is cheat offsetting. So if you're in a relationship, or you're lucky enough to be with someone, and for whatever reason something goes a little bit wrong, you know, one of you does something that you probably shouldn't, (CUSTOMER INTERRUPTS) well, what you can do is, you can come to us and pay us a small amount of money, and what we do is, we take that money and we invest it in couples like yourselves, who are faithful to each other, and that way we can neutralise the damage that you've done to your relationship. 

How about if you said, I got drunk and I slept with someone, but then I paid cheatneutral to offset that by paying other people to be single, so the total levels of heartbreak in the world haven't gone up. 

Man: I think you'd benefit more from doing a campaign against cheating to stop them doing it in the first place, rather than ... ? 

Man: So you think it'd be better if people didn't cheat at all, rather than cheating and then paid someone else not to cheat? 

Rachel Carbonell: In Europe, trees as offsets have had a bad name for some time now, so people are starting to invest more in renewable energy projects as offsets instead. 

The problem with this, according to Kevin Smith, is that renewable energy projects in rich countries are quite expensive. So offset companies are looking for cheaper options in poorer countries. He says what you end up with is people living in places like Europe and America, using fossil fuels with abandon, and then trying to make up for it by paying for offsets which invest in renewable energy projects elsewhere in the world, where they're less expensive. 

Kevin Smith: What you're essentially doing when you do any offset project in a southern country or a developing world country, is you're taking that country's ability to reduce emissions cheaply, and turning it into a resource which you can then extract and make a profit on, and thus it's creating a new commodity to be profitably used by the first world country, and in this way it's a new form of carbon colonialism. 

Rachel Carbonell: Kevin Smith says the public perception is that all renewable energy projects are good. But if a project is built at the expense of the human rights of locals in developing countries, then perhaps investors need to take a closer look. 

Carbon Trade Watch says it has documented evidence of the way that some of these projects have been harming communities overseas. 

Kevin Smith: My colleague at Carbon Trade Watch has visited some of these renewable projects in India, and what she's seen is a national park, a large area has been clearfelled, people have been denied access to land that used to be accessible to them in this park, in order to build an enormous wind farm. And once this was an area of biodiversity and vegetation, and people had access to it, and it's been clearfelled for a wind farm. So you can't just say it's renewable therefore it's good, you have to look at the context. 

Rachel Carbonell: So while wind farm projects in places like east coast Australia are often abandoned because of strong community opposition, people living near proposed renewable energy projects in poorer countries might not have so much of a say, because their democratic rights aren't quite so robust.

Carbon Trade Watch is very much at one polar extreme of this argument. But some of the criticisms it makes, especially of tree planting, or biosequestration, resonate with senior scientists here in Australia.

Chief research scientist at the CSIRO's Marine and Atmospheric Research Centre, Michael Raupach, says trees are indeed an unreliable way to try and reduce carbon emissions.

Michael Raupach: Tree planting is like borrowing or investing money on the most wildly fluctuating financial market that there is. We can gain or lose many times more money in a single year than we invest, in this form of sequestration. So it might take us ten years, for example, to build up a stock of carbon, and that stock of carbon can be completely removed by fire, or by widespread drought in a single year or two.

Rachel Carbonell: He makes the point that trees can absorb carbon, but they're part of what's called the 'active carbon cycle', which is different to when the carbon is locked in the ground as a fossil fuel, like coal and oil.

Michael Raupach: Well offsetting is taking carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it into stores in land vegetation or soils on land, and as such, it's borrowing carbon from the atmosphere, rather than actually removing carbon from the atmosphere. The carbon is borrowed over a period of something like 10 to 50 years, depending on the kind of store that it's put into. And that means that over that sort of time frame, it's going to return to the atmosphere, which means that we'd have to keep managing any piece of land which is being used for carbon storage in this way, so that the carbon actually stays there. We have to maintain that management more or less forever.

Rachel Carbonell: While Europe is turning away from trees, Australia is just starting to get the message. At the crux of the issue here, is badly managed tree offset projects.

In some cases, when you pay your money, the offset provider doesn't plant the trees for some time. So they won't even start to draw down the carbon from the atmosphere until they're planted. And even then, they may well take decades to start storing the carbon that you emitted during your aeroplane flight that day.

The Federal Trade Commission in the United States is also looking into all of these issues, and the ACCC will visit this month to compare notes.

Yet another area of controversy in this industry is airline offsets.

Scientific studies show that greenhouse gas emissions are worse when you're up in the air than when you're at ground level, like when you're driving a car. But the airlines don't take this into account when they offer customers the opportunity to offset their flights. 

The not-for-profit organisation, Climate Positive, aims to help reduce carbon emissions and offers carbon offsetting as part of its overall program. Its founder, Brendan Condon, chose not to tender for any of the Australian airline offsetting programs, because he believes the carbon calculations on the airline websites are flawed. And thus he turned down the chance to attract some pretty big money to his organisation.

Brendan Condon: Aviation is one of the most rapidly-growing sectors of global emissions, and at the moment the science hasn't clearly identified exactly how damaging it is. We know that there's an amplification factor with aviation emissions. If you release a tonne of greenhouse gas at altitude, the warming impact is much greater than releasing it at ground level, and we're uncertain exactly how great that is. It's between something like 2 and 8 times the warming impact. Flying is something that is not to be taken lightly at all. Video conference, holiday locally, avoid long distance relationships, they burn avgas and can be very frustrating. And I think that flying is something that shouldn't be taken lightly, and I do have a problem with inherently carbon-intensive products that are discretionary and that are not essential, being seen as a consumer item that can be flippantly offset.

Rachel Carbonell: Australia's major airlines, Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin all promote their programs to reduce energy consumption and emissions. And have put considerable effort into advertising their offset programs, which say that you can 'fly carbon neutral'. 

Commercial: Virgin Blue is committed to addressing its emissions and reducing the amount of energy it uses as much as possible. As part of that commitment, Virgin Blue is now offering its guests the opportunity to make their flight carbon neutral, that is, to offset the emissions attributed to your feet on any flight anywhere in the network.

Rachel Carbonell: And for 64-cents, you can offset your flight and fly carbon neutral between Melbourne and Sydney. 

So why aren't the airlines including in their calculations the fact that more global warming is caused by air travel than other kinds of energy use, like driving?

The Manager for Public Affairs at Virgin Blue is Colin Lippiatt. 

Colin Lippiatt: Well first and foremost, we are fully aware of non-CO2 related emissions from aviation that may contribute to climate change, and they do indeed include nitrogen oxides and other substances. The bottom line at the moment is that the studies of a high scientific nature to quantify these impacts, are ongoing. At this stage because there is such an enormous amount of scientific complexity here, there is a degree of misunderstanding and disagreement on how to best quantify those sorts of measures. And that's precisely why Virgin Blue is working with the Tourism and Transport Forum, and we've proposed that an information paper be produced by a credible third party, such as the CSIRO, to present the issue, the science, the results to date, in a format that can be understood by all stakeholders. At the moment in the methodology we use, we use those guidelines set down again by the Greenhouse-Friendly program.

Rachel Carbonell: That's Virgin Blue's Colin Lippiatt.

At Qantas, the Chief Risk Operator is Rob Kella. 

Rob Kella: We'd argue, and I think the aviation industry argues, that there is currently no scientific consensus on the issue in Australia, or overseas. There are scientific studies that say there's no amplification, and there's a range and variety of different amplification factors. We, in our discussions with government, in our discussions with environmental organisations, have indicated that we will continue to monitor this situation. We've actively supported the Australian Tourism and Transport Forum, they're working with the CSIRO currently, and that is something that we work with them on a variety of initiatives, effectively to produce an Australian paper on this particular issue, and when there is more consensus, we'll certainly consider using that type of factor. 

Rachel Carbonell: Both Qantas and Virgin Blue say their offsets are accredited by the Australian government's Greenhouse Friendly initiative, which is one of two Australian offset accreditation programs. 

While the offsetting industry generally is receiving some pretty bad publicity at the moment, there is a raft of scientists, economists, environment groups and global warming experts who say that offsetting is a necessary part of tackling climate change.

One of the stakeholders providing some guidance to the ACCC on this issue is the Total Environment Centre. It plans to set up a website which ranks offset providers from best to worse, in a similar way to its Green Electricity Watch website.

The Director of the Total Environment Centre is Jeff Angel, and he says the industry is a bit wild at the moment.

Jeff Angel: Embryonic, lacks rules, chaotic, some cowboys, and there's a grave risk that if the cowboys get sufficient adverse publicity, that that will seriously affect the credibility of the industry, and the attraction of carbon offsets and carbon neutrality, which have a very important role to play in climate change policies, and we want to avoid that. We want to see the expansion of a genuine, effective carbon offset industry that delivers quick and permanent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Rachel Carbonell: At the organisation Climate Positive, founder Brendan Condon says offsetting needs to be one small part of a bigger strategy, not a method used in isolation.

Brendan Condon: We think that education is very, very important, so that people understand the threats, the risks, the projections and the solutions. We also believe people need to work very hard to measure and understand their carbon footprint, and to reduce that dramatically. That's the only real solution to global warming. And then once people have been through that process, and have a residual footprint, they've got the option of investing in carbon offsets and support good projects that result in reductions of greenhouse gases in other places. So offsets are one small component of a climate protection strategy, and all the offsets in the world won't reduce global warming if we don't radically reduce emissions.

KERMIT SINGS: It's not that easy being green

Rachel Carbonell: Background Briefing's Co-ordinating Producer is Linda McGinness; Research, Anna Whitfeld; Technical Operator, Andrei Shabunov, and Executive Producer, Kirsten Garrett. You'll find links to some of the relevant organisations on the Background Briefing website. I'm Rachel Carbonell.


Further Information

Climate Positive

Cheat Neutral

The Total Environment Centre


Greenhouse Friendly


Carbon Trade Watch



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