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Lost in compensation

Net zero carbon, climate positive, net zero climate footprint, negative emissions. And yet. What do all these concepts actually mean? Who can you trust? How can I know what is pure greenwashing, in other words, that a company merely gives the impression of being environment friendly, and what is a genuinely reasonable effort? It is a jungle for consumers.

Companies marketing their products with the use of these new concepts has become a growing trend in many sectors. You can see this when you browse any newspaper or see a TV advert. What is especially difficult is how to process such information when you are comparing the blurb on the packaging of two different products in a food store. Just recently for example, Arla Organic Milk, proclaimed as having a zero climate footprint, was named Food Bluff of the Year. A bit unfair you may think, Arla is surely a serious-minded company.

But this is not what it is all about in this case, it is more about the impossible situation customers face. Arla has also welcomed the fact that the Swedish Consumer Agency, KO, has reported Arla for its campaign. Clear guidelines are needed here, not only for food products, but also for travel, energy, and other services.

“Net zero climate footprint” or similar, generally concerns some kind of climate compensation, for example, where you buy emission rights to offset against your emissions, or plant trees that sequester carbon. One common fear raised with climate compensation is that this shifts the focus away from the actual enterprise. If you carbon offset a flight, this self-evidently does not reduce flight-related emissions, but will hopefully lead to compensation in the form of financing other climate improvement measures somewhere else. Here, there are both genuinely serious-minded companies and scam merchants on the market.

Another problematical aspect is that such compensation is expected to occur over a long period while climate change emissions are happening right now.

On a trip to the US a few years ago, I hired a car from a famous American car hire company for a couple of weeks and was invited to climate compensate my use of the car. At the time, this cost five dollars as a one-off charge. Naturally, I asked what kind of genial measures they intended to implement for these five dollars that would have such an amazingly beneficial impact. The friendly clerk behind the desk informed me that unfortunately, they had not as yet been given this information and as a matter of fact, we were the very first people to choose this option.

There is nothing wrong in principle with climate compensation if this is a serious endeavour and genuinely results in a corresponding climate benefit, but it should not become an obstacle to any improvements that can be implemented in a business and, when five dollars can offset a two-week road trip by car – put your cards on the table.