Ausgabe 44/2006

The Climate Indulgence Market Planting Trees to Atone for our Environmental Sins

Companies offer customers the option of offsetting the CO2 emissions caused by air travel, driving a car or home energy use by paying for environmental projects. But how effective can personal emissions offsetting programs be in fighting climate change?


Greenhouse gas-emitting air travel: Environmental programs seek to provoke a sense of shame in frequent flyers.

Greenhouse gas-emitting air travel: Environmental programs seek to provoke a sense of shame in frequent flyers.

In the past Udo Wurzel used black humor to cope with all the air pollution in his hometown. In the winter, he says, it was easy to figure out where the wind was coming from. If the snow was gray, it was clear that the wind was blowing from the west. "That was where the big cement plant was located," he says. And if the wind was blowing from the east, snowflakes soon turned brown -- "thanks to the Buna Plant."

Wurzel, 60, is the mayor of Mücheln, a small city in the Geisel valley south of the eastern German city of Halle, which is framed by an abandoned brown coal open-cast mine and the 100-meter (328-foot) Klobikau slag heap. When he came into office in 1990, just after German reunification, he knew that the first thing he had to do was to plant trees, "to clean up the air that we were breathing."

Wurzel is no longer the only one planting trees in this once heavily polluted region in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt. Pop stars, multinational corporations and even ordinary citizens from all over the world have jumped on the environmental bandwagon, but the motivation behind their efforts to clean up the region has more to do with the world's climate than the respiratory systems of Mücheln's citizens. In a campaign to prevent an excessive rise in global temperature, high-profile donors, including the band Massive Attack and auto rental firm Avis, are spending large sums of money to have poplars, robinias and oaks planted in this former industrial zone.

Graphic: Paying for a clear conscience

Graphic: Paying for a clear conscience

"The trees are intended to absorb precisely the same amount of carbon dioxide that the donors have produced," explains forestry expert Andreas Winkelmann as he stands on the slag heap, looking out over the open-cast mine, which in fact feeds into one of Germany's largest lakes. Winkelmann and Mayor Wurzel are inspecting the slag heap's east flank. Below a former launching pad for Soviet missiles armed with nuclear warheads, a stretch of vacant land is being reforested with funds from international donors.

Winkelmann examines the leaves on the young trees, which stand in rows two meters (about seven feet) apart and are gradually turning a warm orange. When the reforested area reaches maturity, these trees will store about 30,000 tons of CO2. "It's incredibly important that we monitor the project," he says.

Private emissions trading

His job is to keep track of how many of the saplings are thriving. Winkelmann works for P&P Dienstleistungsgesellschaft, a forestry company from the western German Westerwald region, which in turn is under contract to the CarbonNeutral Company. The London-based firm manages trading in greenhouse gas emissions -- both for corporations and private citizens.

"They send over their own inspectors at regular intervals, so that they can be sure, over there in faraway England, that everything here is above board," says Winkelmann, who goes by the newfangled and entirely un-German title of CO2 Manager.

The British company's business model is on the cusp of a booming new business in carbon dioxide offsets. If companies like CarbonNeutral have their way, the nascent system will one day include each individual emitter of CO2 and those companies that are not being forced to reduce carbon dioxide emissions under Europe's Emissions Trading System.

"It makes sense as a supplementary measure," says Yvo de Boer, head of the new United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and one of the key players at the United Nations Climate Change Conference set to begin next Monday in Nairobi.

Rock without regrets: A Rolling Stones concert in Rio in 2006.

Rock without regrets: A Rolling Stones concert in Rio in 2006.

This year an estimated €90 million is being spent worldwide on such compensatory projects. The volume of the programs is likely to increase to almost half a billion euros within the next three years. Even American companies are getting involved, despite the fact the United States government has officially rejected the Kyoto Protocol.

The companies that trade in CO2 offsets go by names like MyClimate, Atmosfair, 3C and Climate Care. In addition to corporations and ordinary citizens, they are all too happy to take on celebrities as their clients. Bands like the Rolling Stones, for example, hire CO2 offset consultants to make their concerts CO2-neutral and help them disseminate slogans like "Rock without Regrets."

Far from being restricted to rock stars and big business, CO2 offsets are also available to anyone plagued by a bad environmental conscience. Private citizens can now pay to offset the carbon dioxide emissions from their cars or vacation flights to the Caribbean. According to a survey completed for SPIEGEL, 66 percent of German citizens would be willing to pay a 10-percent surcharge on their airline tickets to offset emissions, although whether this willingness will translate into hard cash remains to be seen.

British Airways already offers a CO2 emissions offset service on its Web site. All it takes is a few mouse clicks and credit card for a traveler to book a seat in the airline's new green class. German national carrier Lufthansa is also apparently in negotiations with a provider. CO2 catharsis is also available for refrigerators, homes and even the climatic collateral damage caused by one's own wedding.

Easing the conscience with the checkbook

But the trade in emissions is not without critics. They say the scheme only leads people to believe that they can somehow buy their way out of their environmental sins. They argue that those who use their checkbooks to lessen the burdens on their conscience end up stepping on the gas pedal all the more thoughtlessly.

Companies that trade in emissions offsets have already responded to these accusations. "We always suggest to our customers that they first look into ways to reduce or even eliminate their carbon dioxide emissions," says Jonathan Shopley of CarbonNeutral.

The "emissions calculator" on Atmosfair's Web site, which calculates the CO2 emissions for specific flight itineraries, is meant to provoke a sense of shame in frequent flyers. It compares the results to the annual emissions of an average Indian -- 900 kilograms (1,987 pounds) of CO2 -- which is the same amount a German tourist generates on a flight from Frankfurt to Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands, a popular vacation destination.

Critics also accuse corporate customers of using the system as a low-cost marketing tool. Indeed, some of the providers in this new eco-economy openly tout the PR impact on their corporate clients. On its Web site, 3C, a climate service provider headquartered near Frankfurt, informs its customers that one of the benefits of using its service is that it provides "effective PR positioning as a responsible and innovative corporate citizen."

3C guarantees that it can do so in a "cost-efficient way," and it lists among its satisfied customers major German companies like the travel company Neckermann and Deutsche Bank, as well as the world soccer federation, FIFA, which used 3C's services to neutralize carbon dioxide emissions at the World Cup in Germany this summer. "We even had the German Institute for Applied Ecology calculate the emissions associated with (former soccer star) Franz Beckenbauer's helicopter flights," says Sascha Lafeld, the company's CEO.

Lifestyle environmentalists

All this hyping of environmental good behavior seems to be having its intended effect, at least among the affluent middle class. Sven Bode, head of a recently established provider called "greenmiles," focuses on what he calls "lifestyle environmentalists" as his clientele. His target customers, says Bode, are people who live by the motto "fun but fair" and like to support environmental projects. And if his plan works, he says, "climate protection will soon be sexy."

But what kinds of projects really help reduce the effects of climate change? Energy-efficient light bulbs for Jamaicans? Solar stoves for Indians? Or planting trees in the former East Germany?

Some environmentalists ridicule the reforestation projects. "Telling people to plant trees makes about as much as sense as suggesting they drink more water to offset rising sea levels," says Oliver Rackham, a historical ecologist at Cambridge University.

Ernst-Detlef Schulze, a director at the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in the eastern German city of Jena, also has his doubts. Schulze is one of the world's leading experts in the study of carbon cycles in trees. Using complex equipment, he has analyzed trees and arrives at a sobering conclusion for a typical tree growing outdoors in a moderate climate: "It would have to be at least 60 years old before it became a net consumer of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere."

Schulze's work highlights a fact that is too often overlooked: Although a tree absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through its leaves, it also releases the carbon stored in the ground from its roots when it absorbs nutrients. This is especially true of younger trees. Whether a tree will actually last 60 years or be harvested much earlier is something no one can predict. "Reforesting the world," says Schulze, "is unlikely to save us." Some emissions offsetting agencies, including Atmosfair, don't even offer tree planting campaigns as part of their emissions offsetting programs.

Indeed, customers should pay close attention to the kinds of climate project projects they are spending their money on. The programs worth recommending are those based on a standard known as CER, or "Certified Emission Reduction," which means that they satisfy the strict guidelines issued by the United Nations Climate Change Secretariat. Another supposed seal of quality, VER ("Verified Emission Reduction") sounds confusingly similar.

And indeed the name sounds just as credible. But verification under VER is based on criteria defined by the providers themselves. Dietrich Brockhagen, managing director of Atmosfair, calls this nothing but a license to commit fraud.

"It is as if you took your car in for an inspection," he says, "and said to the inspector: 'Just don't look at the brakes!'"


© DER SPIEGEL 44/2006
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