Categories
On the Road Sustainability

The Controversy Around Offsetting CO2 Emissions from Air Travel.

In some parts of Africa, poor families are cutting down wild trees so they can live their lives — for cooking and heating; they have nothing else to burn. As a result, the vegetation goes away, the desert expands, and slowly but surely it is making more and more land uninhabitable. Additionally, those trees that are cut can no longer take CO2 out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis, so the process also contributes to climate change.

The German non-profit Atmosfair have found a way to help: They provide families in these parts of the world with very energy-efficient ovens that only need a fraction of the wood to provide the same amount of heat and cooking power.

On this blog, we’ve mentioned a number of times that we are trying to limit the climate impact of making this film (and of our lives in general). In terms of our travels, we do our long journeys with all our equipment in an electric car which we charge with renewable energy. And only in rare instances, when there is no other way for us to do it — let’s say because we need to go to South Korea for our story, or because we have to go to Scotland and have only two days for it because of other commitments — we do take a plane.

And when we do, we compensate for (or: offset) the CO2 emissions from these flights — by paying for these ovens that Atmosfair is bringing to these families.

Many people who are concerned about the climate believe that offsetting CO2 emissions is actually a bad thing — they believe it makes people feel good about something bad that they just shouldn’t be doing. And that it does not solve any climate problem. It just makes everything worse because people who compensate keep up their bad lifestyle, rather than becoming part of the solution for a better world.

There is a lot of truth to that. Flying, in particular, is especially bad for our climate. And it’s important to seriously consider any flight anybody wants to go on, and whether there is not another way to achieve the same objective. A return flight from Rome to Reykjavík, for instance, emits roughly the entire yearly CO2 budget that a human being on earth can afford to produce in a year if we want to live sustainable lives. In other words, if you’ve done that flight, theoretically you cannot really consume … well, actually, live after that.

But we would like to explain why we still go on flights, and why we believe that compensating — at least the way we are doing it — is a good compromise.

When it comes to compensating CO2 emissions, there are a lot of climate-destroying habits that should absolutely not be compensated. A good example is a steak house telling its customers that their food is “climate neutral” because they pay for compensation for their meat production. That is truly a bad idea. Our current meat consumption habits cannot go on, and there is no way of solving that problem by compensating. Instead, it falsely suggests to customers that somehow this meat isn’t so bad. Instead, we simply must get used to eating other things than meat, in order to keep earth inhabitable for humans. And we can — we do not need meat to live. The same goes for CO2-emitting cars, or for any other activity that can be carried out with alternative means.

That is a little different with flying. We cannot really live without it anymore, if we assume that encounters with people in other parts of the world and experiences abroad are good for us: Arguably, our world becomes a better place when we meet each other, when we see other places and people in far away countries. The more we establish human connections across borders, continents, disparate parts of the world, the more we will (hopefully) be able to understand that we are all part of one big family, and that our lives are connected and intertwined. If we decided to ban all flying (if that was even possible), the effects would be very negative — and I don’t mean just in terms of economic impact. I mean in terms of the effect on us as open, connected, curious human beings.

So the first point is: A lot of flying is truly and substantially wrong — a business man who thinks he needs to be flying from Frankfurt to Hamburg and back for a business conversation which could also happen by video conference is simply an idiot, climatically speaking. And so is the hipster couple that decide they “need” a weekend in Mallorca just to relax. And don’t get me started on people who fly to Paris for a day just to go shopping. But Brasilians who live in England should be able to visit their families in Brasil. A person living abroad to make money for the family back home must have a chance to go and see them. And (arguably), if we are making a documentary about how we need to change our economic system, we should be able to fly to South Korea if the story demands it.

Yes, these are moral choices. I fully acknowledge that I am making a call on what is good and what is bad travel. We must get to a point where we can have this conversation, otherwise we’re not going to make progress. “I need my freedom and anything goes as long as I can pay for it” is not a position we can maintain in a world with limited resources. We need to start arguing about what’s needed and what isn’t.

Secondly, flying will become climate-neutral. What’s necessary to make that happen are synthetic fuels — they exist already today, and they are made by taking CO2 out of the atmosphere, and combining it with other molecules, to create fuels that, when they are burned, simply return that CO2 to the atmosphere, rather than adding more CO2 to it. The problem with these fuels is that they are still very expensive to make, and for that reason, they are not widely available yet. Mass production needs to be developed. But we really have no choice — we need to make that happen.

So a CO2-neutral solution is actually already available for flying — and in that respect, flying is different from a steak. Unless we truly find a way of making synthetic steaks (which people keep talking about, but they still seems a bit far from reality), our meat consumption needs to change. Our flying habits, on the other hand, can become sustainable.

This is why we think flying is an acceptable thing to do if three conditions are in place:

  1. Any flight is carefully considered, and only done if there is no other means of achieving the same outcome.
  2. A flight is understood as what it is: something profound and rare, and not a thing we do as easily as taking a subway or a bus.
  3. The CO2 emissions of the flight are compensated with a provider that understands that CO2 compensation is only the last resort.

 

The people at Atmosfair don’t think that compensating is a good solution — they consider it only the third-best option. They consult with companies and individuals, and they primarily focus on avoiding CO2. If that cannot be done, then they will try to reduce CO2 emissions. And only as a third response to CO2 emissions, they propose to compensate. (And they will not sell compensation to the steak house mentioned above.)

As it says on their website:

For climate protection reasons, CO₂ avoidance should have priority over other measures. If it is not possible to avoid CO₂ emissions, at least measures should be taken in order to reduce them as much as possible. atmosfair can offset unavoidable emissions for you through high-quality CDM Gold Standard climate protection projects.

So, we do acknowledge that flying is currently still a very dangerous thing for our world. We believe that flights should only be taken if absolutely no other option is available, and if their meaning is truly appreciated. And finally, when we do fly, we compensate with Atmosfair, because we have met with them, and they do take this issue very seriously.

And we cannot wait for synthetic fuels to become widely available.

Categories
Gross Domestic Product Sustainability

World Economic Forum: “Forget GDP.”

On November 13th, Pushpam Kumar — Chief Environmental Economist at the UN — published a text on the “Agenda” blog of the WEF website, cautioning against the use of the GDP as the primary yardstick for economic and societal progress. Titled “Forget GDP – for the 21st century we need a modern growth measure“, he is quite explicit about the GDP’s shortfalls:

GDP provides measurements of output, income and expenditure quite well, and these are needed to understand and devise fiscal and monetary policies. But this measure flatly fails when it comes to wellbeing.

And he quotes a UN report that shows that nature “goes down” while the GDP goes up:

The UN Environment Programme-led Inclusive Wealth Index shows the aggregation through accounting and shadow pricing of produced capital, natural capital and human capital for 140 countries. The global growth rate of wealth tracked by this index is much lower than growth in GDP. In fact, the 2018 data suggests natural capital declined for 140 countries for the period of 1992 to 2014.

As a consequence, he advocates five factors that a better measure for progress should consider: financial and produced capital (these are the more traditional output-based measures, interested in assessing whether more has been produced and earned), plus: skills in the workforce (human capital), cohesion in society (social capital) and finally, the value of our environment (natural capital). The approach is still a very monetary one — he argues in terms of what all this is “worth” to us, financially speaking:

Natural capital assets such as forests and water bodies have only been valued for the products they provide for the market, such as timber and fish. However, these ecosystems offer a much larger suite of services, such as water purification, water regulation and habitat provisioning for species, among many others. These are clearly valuable services.

I am unsure if true change can happen if we keep considering the financial measurement of outputs as a core element of our economic systems, and if we evaluate nature as “but a resource” that provides services which we just haven’t started including in the calculation yet. The chosen vocabulary betrays a viewpoint that still considers the “accumulation of wealth” as the core idea of any economic activity — just a more varied range of “wealth types”. And yet, it seems like a helpful starting point for those who come from a GDP point of view.

Finally, he presents a Canadian approach to measuring progress more holistically, the Comprehensive Wealth Project, which now includes the five factors. And its current results are summarised as follows in the text:

The report raises several red flags, most notably that Canadians’ comprehensive wealth only grew at an annual average rate of 0.2% from 1980 to 2015. In contrast, GDP grew at an annual average rate of 1.31% over the same period.

In other words, if you look at all five facets, the GDP of Canada may have been growing by 1.31% per year on average — so the country keeps making and earning more. But in terms of a more overall approach to wellbeing, the development has been pretty much flat.

In other words, and once again: More GDP does not mean better lives.

Categories
Gross Domestic Product Sustainability Wellbeing Economies: Concept

Criticising the GDP: a Key Concept for Wellbeing Economies.

One of the key ideas driving the fight for wellbeing economies is the realisation that the Gross Domestic Product — the GDP — and its “endless growth” may no longer be the right measures to guide our economic policies. What served us well in the past, particularly after the end of World War 2, seems to be increasingly dangerous for the development of our societies. In our latest short video, we’re explaining why that is:

Update December 3rd 2018: If you’re interested in this, here is another blog post that describes what an alternative to “GDP-thinking” might look like, and what countries are doing to implement it.

Categories
Behind the Scenes Sustainability

Video Interviews Without Travelling.

A quick snapshot from last week — one of the people we are speaking with for our film is Alvaro Cedeño Molinari, the current Costa Rican Ambassador to the World Trade Organisation. Alvaro is a fierce fighter for sustainable trade and for a sustainable development of our world, and it’s such a pleasure to talk to him. (Also, he is a much better-looking man than you might think after seeing this slightly distorted snapshot. 😉 )

Here I am speaking with him on Zoom (it’s like Skype, but much better video and sound quality), and we’re actually recording the conversation through the Zoom app.

We met Alvaro first at a “task force meeting” for the Wellbeing Eonomy Governments project in Edinburgh a few months ago, and then again in Costa Rica when we went there in the summer. And then we met his family and did a longer interview in Geneva, where he lives, in early September.

A lot is going on in Costa Rica these days, and some of it has an impact on the story of our film. So we need to stay in touch with Alvaro. And even though it’s the absolute best thing to go and see and meet people, we cannot travel all the time, and speak to someone like Alvaro in person as often as we want. (Not only, but in part also for reasons of sustainability.)

So I’ve started interviewing our protagonists online, from time to time. And we’ll most likely use some of this footage in our film.

Note: We are not getting endorsed by Zoom, or getting paid, we just like the service.

Categories
Introduction Sustainability Wellbeing Economies: Concept

Welcome Video.

A short introductory film to our project.

Categories
Introduction On the Road Sustainability

A film-making journey: sustainable.

Earlier this year, we’ve begun working on this documentary film. From the start, the project has required a lot of travelling. We’re going to Rome frequently, and we’re additionally shooting all around Italy. We’re filming in Scotland quite a bit, and also in a whole bunch of places between the two — different parts of Germany, England, Switzerland. Finally, we’ve been to Costa Rica for a few days and shot material at a sustainable fashion conference, and towards the end of this year we’ll even have the chance to go to South Korea to film at an OECD conference there.

A key concern of the protagonists that we’re filming — and our own, too — is climate change. That is why we are trying to make the shooting of this film as light on the environment as we can.

For our travels this means: The lion’s share of our trips around Europe are done by electric car, which we charge at stations that run on renewable energy. But that’s not always easy as flights are so ridiculously cheap. And driving from Berlin to Rome or from Berlin to Scotland takes two days in both cases — that is quite along haul. So there is always the temptation to fly. And we have flown — in cases when we would only be able to spend a couple of days on location. Going on a trip, driving two days both ways, in order to spend only two days in a place just makes no sense.

But we know that flight prices do not reflect the actual cost of these flights — they are heavily subsidised, so other forms of transport don’t stand a chance in comparison. Yet on an individual level, flying is the most energy-heavy form of travel. Anyone concerned about climate change should seriously think about the flying they do. So climatically speaking, flights should be much more expensive than they are. But they’re not.

So when we do have to fly we always compensate our flights’ CO2 emissions with Atmosfair. Atmosfair is a German non-profit that builds infrastructure around the world to help avoid CO2 emissions, and by paying them for compensation, we can help finance CO2-reducing infrastructur that corresponds with the CO2 that was emitted from our flights.

Finally, during the course of the project, I (Martin) have already become a vegetarian, and Nick has seriously cut down on his meat consumption.

We will also use this blog to report on our experiences with sustainable film making.