Cynically put, carbon trading is about buying your green credentials. Rich polluters get to pay their proxies - ie the disadvantaged - to clean up the planet. Rich polluters continue to emit as much carbon as ever, but on paper they're cleaner because someone else somewhere else (usually a lot poorer) is doing the carbon-busting for the rich polluters' money. Sounds tidy, but how accurate are the carbon stats?
A good example of this kind of transaction is the recent reported deal between the global showbiz Creative Artists' Agency (which represents such A-listers as Tom Cruise, Steven Spielberg and Meryl Streep) and Robin Birley's Envirotrade.
Creditably, Envirotrade is encouraging farmers in Nhambita, Mozambique, to grow trees for sustainable cutting. To this end the organisation supplies the trees and equipment for nothing. The carbon that these trees absorb is then traded (ie quantified, valued as "carbon credits", and sold) and the profits shared with the farmers.
But is it possible to calculate accurately the carbon removal?
I ask because I can't make much sense of Birley's figures. In ES magazine last Friday be boasts that he has just sold 30,000 tons of carbon offset to CAA for $300,000. Yet in September 2006 he told the Daily Mail: "I have just sold 25,000 tons of carbon credits, worth $125,000, to the American showbiz agency Creative Artists." Was the deal re-negotiated then? Did the trees prove to be more effective, hence the 5,000 tons surge? We're not told.
Perhaps something has got lost in translation. The figures are substantially different. But if carbon offset deals of this kind are to earn credibility, the numbers must be discrete and scientific; not guesstimates or airy-fairy approximates. If carbon trading is intended to re-oxygenate our planet we'd better know exactly the amount of carbon reduction per offset, if rich nations don't intend to do anything about their own actual carbon footprint.
Meanwhile, CAA is now "carbon neutral" for a year, according to Birley, even if its projects continue to choke us. It was movie director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day) who got CAA into environmentalism. For his apocalyptic movie The Day After Tomorrow Emmerich spent hundreds of thousands of dollars from his own pocket in carbon offsets to compensate for the environmental impact of the production of the film. This influenced CAA to sign up to Bill Clinton's Clinton Global Initiative and pledging itself to carbon neutrality.
Lots of good intentions here, but to my mind carbon trading is just another fudge, just another putting-off of the day when rich nations have to wake up to the fact that carbon reduction starts at home, not just over there. It's cool tokenism in order to keep things as they are while appearing to do something.
For this is the true scale of the problem: around 24,000 million tons of man-made carbon dioxide are released into the global atmosphere every year, equivalent to about 6,500 million tons of carbon (2002, UN). For the complete list of countries by carbon dioxide emissions, click this link.