Well, for a start we can forget what Jeremy Clarkson thinks about global warming. You can tell the world is in big trouble because the oil companies have stopped trying to pay up teams of scientists to prove to us that even if it were happening – which it isn’t – it would not have been their fault in the first place. Instead they’ve started taking out full page ads in newspapers so they can bang on about how much money they invest in green technology and how environmentally friendly they are.
Now, there is a big problem with the whole idea that anything we do can ever be described as ‘environmentally friendly’ in any way whatsoever. And it is this: our mere existence is inherently damaging to the world in which we live. We do it some damage each time we get in a plane, train or automobile; every time we make or buy something; every time we eat, drink, breathe or fart. So if you want to be ‘environmentally friendly’ my advice is this. Resign from work as soon as possible or, if you own the gaff, close your business down. Then, go home, throw yourself on a compost heap and kill yourself.
I don’t really expect you to do this, but we should see the claim of ‘environmental friendliness’ for the hollow piece of corporate speak it is. Instead we should be striving for a balance between the impact of our existence, our eco-footprint, and the Earth’s ability to deal with it.
While the causes and effects of climate change are a source of ongoing debate, the figure that seems to loom large in many eyes is that the Earth’s capacity to function requires us to emit no more than 9 billion tonnes of CO² a year, a level which would lead to a stable concentration of the gas in the atmosphere.
In population terms that means around 2 billion people emitting 4.5 tons of CO² a year. You can judge how out of whack this all is when you realise that the current population of the Earth stands at around 6.5 billion and the average American emits about 20 tons a year and the average European about 10 tons.
In the face of this, there is a temptation to ‘do your bit for the environment’. This is the level of eco-awareness that encourages companies to use recycled paper and toner cartridges, to send cans and plastic cups for recycling and so on. Welcome though this is, it is essentially a salve for the conscience rather than salvation of the environment.
But what could really make a difference means some very difficult decisions for business owners, organisations and policy makers. Commercial buildings, for example, are responsible for around 57 million tonnes of CO² emissions a year. Cars are responsible for some 68 million tonnes a year and aviation accounts for another 40 million or so.
One idea that has gained credibility recently is carbon offsetting. It has become something of a cause celeb with bands such as Coldplay launching ‘carbon neutral’ albums. The idea is to wipe away the tracks of your eco-footprint by investing in programmes that offset your carbon emissions by planting trees or investing in other schemes aimed at improving the environment.
At its simplest level this may mean buying a number of trees calculated against your carbon emissions. This was the route chosen by Swiss Re, which is working on a ten year plan towards carbon neutrality by cutting its own emissions by around 15 per cent in various ways – each of its 8500 employees currently emits around 5 or 6 tonnes each on average – then offsetting the remainder by investing in the World Bank Community Development Carbon Fund.
Inevitably, carbon offsetting has its critics. Among them – perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not – are Friends of the Earth who argue that the forestry business seems suspiciously keen on the idea, that it is wrong to set up companies that profit from it all, that offsetting may not have the desired effect anyway and that it seems so bloody easy and makes it pretty likely that people will buy the 4×4, drive the kids the 400 yards to school in it each day, then buy a few trees in Bhutan so that they can get away with it.
(With apologies to Johnny Neptune. And for mentioning Coldplay.)