Monday, 30 June 2008

Who is certifying the certifiers?

Guest blog by the World Land Trust's Special Projects Consultant, Mark Gruin

A recent article on the BBC News website (Carbon standard 'to renew trust') described a new Carbon Standard certification scheme launched by the Carbon Trust. While interesting, and arguably newsworthy, this news is more than a little frustrating and disconcerting. I have a basic mistrust of certification schemes, especially ones like this that make sweeping statements like this one that smear with a very broad brush, "...the new benchmark was in response to the public's growing mistrust of companies' claims to be cutting their greenhouse gas emissions."

The underlying motivation could be seen as noble, if it was not so limiting and frankly, blatantly self-serving. This new scheme specifically eliminates from ranking consideration companies that use a 'third party' to offset emissions on their behalf, in a supposed attempt to claim that only on in-house measures to reduce a company's emissions are worth certifying. (In the interest of full disclosure -- World Land Trust (WLT) does provide 'third party' offsets to businesses, but only if the company agrees to also pursue in-house emissions reduction programmes.

Mind you, making the effort to reduce emissions and putting in place systems to measure and account for the emissions reduction efforts is certainly a good thing. But why eliminate from consideration other sound and proven approaches? And, by not considering for this scheme companies that use a 'third party' - like WLT - to offset emissions on their behalf Carbon Trust could be seen to be aiming sideways criticism at not only those companies who do, but the providers as well.

What gnaws at me most is that the 'certifiers' often introduce schemes like this to try and scramble their way back into the picture. The field of emissions offsetting is maturing rapidly, is eminently verifiable, and recognised and both scientifically sound and beneficial. Furthermore, and this is always the icing on the cake, when the 'certifiers' start charging exorbitant prices just for the privilege of being certified that's where, in my mind, they really cross the line. It's bad enough that a small company, with annual energy expenditure of less than £50k, would need to spend £1,000 to submit an assessment form to be considered for certification; why would they have to, or want to pay an additional £700 to have Carbon Trust 'assist' them in completing the certification materials, then be evaluated by that same Carbon Trust to see if they met the standards? To be fully legitimate and transparent, certification should be prepared and submitted independent from the evaluator and grantor of the certification. How much faith in the standard is generated if the certifier is assisting in the preparation of the application, and is being paid to do so? That money could be much better spent applied to initiatives that prevent even more CO2 from being released into the atmosphere.

Eliminating from consideration for this 'Standard' companies that pursue dedicated in-house programmes to reduce their emissions and choose to offset their emissions with legitimate initiatives that provide credits for reforestation, assisted natural regeneration and avoided deforestation is at best counter-productive. Take for example Nikwax, one of WLT's carbon balanced companies: they do a stringent internal carbon reduction assessment and action plan, they offset their calculated current emissions with WLT, and they match that offset in order to offset what they've emitted 10 years back. Isn't this not only a sound approach, but one that seeks to mitigate the negative effects of greenhouse gas emissions by any legitimate means possible? Why should they be discounted from consideration, and not be properly recognised for their efforts and their leadership? Even worse, why remove the motivation to not only reduce but mitigate?

Certainly, businesses and consumers want to know that claims about emissions offsetting are valid. But they are not stupid, and should not be patronised or mislead by yet another supposedly authoritative certification standard. The information is out there, the public and the media are watching closely, and they are making their own informed decisions. (See Which? Magazine's April 2008 issue, highlighted on WLT's website.)

Maybe we should be asking who is certifying the certifiers, but we would rather spend our energy getting on with the hard work of providing legitimate and verifiable offsets that also benefit biodiversity conservation.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Oil Price hike great for conservation?

With world leaders trying to bring down the price of oil, one thing seems to have been overlooked. The dramatic rise is probably the best thing that could have happened for the planet.

It is surely the swiftest way of curtailing the profligate use of energy. And in any case the high price of petrol is not actually related to the high price of a barrel of oil (at least in the UK,) it is largely related to the tax that is placed on it. It seems bizarre that the UK and other governments are trying to get everyone to reduce their dependence on a carbon economy, to reduce emissions, but as soon as a simple way of doing it comes along they cry "Foul." Not only does a hike in oil prices reduce demand for petrol etc, it will undoubtedly have a knock-on effect on a whole range of consumer products. So all in all, surely for the sake of the future of the planet, we should be welcoming a dramatic rise in oil prices, and hope for further increases. Or have I got something wrong?

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

More awards. Greenwash?

We have just been sent an invitation to apply for a Green Award. Of course, any one who reads my blog will have a fair idea of my reaction. Go to the website and see just how green the event itself is!

So why on earth would any green organisation want to enter such a competition? And why would any seriously green organisation want to pay £75 for the privilege of entering in the first place, and then go to the expense of paying to go to the Dinner?

Answers on a postcard, or by email

Thursday, 5 June 2008

The Menace of the Cat

The Menace of the Cat is the title of a leaflet I purchased on ebay recently, with a couple of other items all dating from 1922 and earlier. And it is an issue that has not gone away. My ebay purchases were all published in the USA, and despite all the evidence of the enormous damage that domestic and feral cats cause to wildlife, in almost all parts of the world, they are still allowed to roam free. In 1922 it was estimated that cats, in New York State alone, were responsible for killing at least 3.5 million birds, mostly songbirds.

These early pamphlets were all advocating licencing of cats, as a way of controlling their numbers. In fact, the spread of rabies has helped control cats in many parts of the US, as cat owners don't want their pets to come into contact with wild possums, raccoons and other species. But in Britain cats are probably more abundant than they have ever been. And almost every cat owner will defend their darling moggies claiming either 'They don't kill birds' or 'They only kill the occasional bird'

But even with a low estimate of the number of cats in Britain, of 10 million, back in 2003, the Mammal Society estimated that cats killed around 300 million mammals and birds a year. Another point to bear in mind is that cats often kill birds when they are at their most vulnerable -- when feeding young, and gathering food for nestlings. And cats do not always kill for food. They are often well fed, with cat food (another subject for the environmentally conscious), and consequently will kill to excess.

But it is a political hot potato, and I can't see the RSPB taking up the cudgels and lobbying for cat licensing, or a ban on cats roaming freely. Nor BirdLife International. The American Bird Conservancy, is one of the few major bird organisations that has really stood up and put its head above the parapet.

But unlike many of the other ways that wildlife is under attack, free roaming cats are something we could bring a halt to. Once upon a time dogs roamed the streets of England -- in my childhood I remember them being let out of an evening in suburban London -- and that is now a thing of the past. Time the same happened to cats?

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

New Naturalists

The Collins New Naturalist series has in recent years been the subject of a hyper inflationary price rise. Collectors have been snapping them up, and there has appeared a group of obsessive collectors, who must have first editions, complete with mint dust wrappers. Now to a naturalist such as myself, this is plain daft. In some cases the second editions are of course more use, because any typos and other errors have been dealt with. And a dust wrapper (very attractive in the case of most New Nat's) is only a piece of easily reproduced paper. In fact I am sure there are a significant number of fakes floating around, since modern photocopies make it very easy, and there are plenty of suckers who will pay a huge premium for one of the rarer volumes if it has a near mint dust-wrapper. And one of the rarer volumes is also the one on Ants, which was actually withdrawn by the publishers (making it rare). Therefore, it is a collectors market, not a naturalists demand that has pushed the prices up. So it was with great delight I noticed that the market appears to be becoming saturated, and confidence is declining. One can now go on to eBay and buy many of the titles at significantly less than their apparent "market value". And even at these greatly reduced prices, they are not actually selling -- perhaps because the dealers are not snapping them up any more. This can only be a good thing for the book buying naturalists. The New Naturalist books are without question some of the finest publications available, but they need to be used. Not put in some collectors cabinet to form a set.

Brazilian hardwoods

I have a large old shed covered with what I thought were very wide elm boards. And recently when remodelling the shed, we moved some of the boards around, and made a discovery. Stamped on one was 'Made in Brazil'. So they weren't elm at all. They were tropical hardwoods -- no wonder they were in such good condition after so long. There is no way I could feel guilty, they were old, dating from ca. 1984, if not before, they were being re-used when they were first put on the shed, and I was now re-using them again. And this is what is so important. Re-using is always better than recycling, and I am horrified at the vast quantities of perfectly good timber (mostly from pallets) that I see going into skips. It is perfectly re-usable. Pallets make extremely good compost bins. Four tied together creates a very good bin, which if bought custom made will cost £50 or more. So rather than just switching off a light, or the standby on the TV, why not re-use some timber? And help save the rainforests.