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Sizing up your carbon footprint

Many of us are worried by future climate change, rising sea levels, storms and flooding, hurricanes and soaring temperatures in some parts of the world predicted to occur as atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide continue their upward trend. That trend had its origins in the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century Europe and the USA – the “first world” and the rapid development and growth of nations once dubbed “second” (communist states) and “third” world.

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Today, increasing road and air travel, heating and cooling our homes and workplaces and the growing pile of electronic gadgets we recharge daily are all contributing to that well-trodden cliché – our carbon footprint. Those of a guilty disposition often try to “offset” their carbon expenditure by buying into schemes that purportedly negate the impact of the carbon pollution their activities produce. Such schemes commonly involve planting CO2-absorbing trees, but there are many that simply trade carbon pollution allowances and are in some ways worse than the notion of sweeping the problem under the proverbial carpet.

To mix a metaphor, it’s robbing Peter to pay Paul, the classic double accounting used by multinational corporations who somehow trim the fat away from their tax bills by charging out their services to subsidiary companies so that their profit line is rendered negligible. Offsetting carbon, however it is done, might appear superficially to be a promising way to tackle the problem of carbon emissions, but it’s environmental double accounting: in this sense the bottom line is not a reduction of carbon emissions and so no environmental impact, rather a shuffling of paper and an offsetting of the moral obligation and the guilt associated with energy use and mass consumerism.

Larita Killian of Indiana University at Columbus, USA, might agree. She has taken an accountancy approach to the ethics of carbon offsetting and reports details in the International Journal of Critical Accounting this month. Killian reveals that while it might appear to be the ethical choice if one must take international flights, drive luxury cars, or consume exotic, non-local food and drink. But, the physical activities involved in offsetting or searching for alternative energy sources involve carbon emissions of their own.

Killian suggests that the whole offsetting industry moves the onus from the providers to the consumers and may well lull individuals into a false sense of security regarding the impact of their activities on the environment without pushing governments and corporate bodies to carry out truly effective measures such as efficiency drives on a massive scale and an enforced reduction of power consumption, the main drives for carbon emissions. She adds that, “The remedy is not to eliminate personal carbon offset accounting, but to augment voluntary offsets with more effective measures such as carbon taxes, formal restrictions on emissions of greenhouse gases, and investments in renewable energy.” Of course, that also assumes the renewable energy sources are wholly sustainable and do not in themselves generate greater emissions in their manufacture, installation, servicing, and decommissioning nor impact on ecosystems to such a degree that their benefits are outstripped by environmental harm.

Research Blogging IconKillian L. (2013). The rhetoric of personal carbon offset accounting, International Journal of Critical Accounting, 5 (6) 663. DOI:

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