Climate change continues to be one of the biggest, most challenging problems our planet faces, and we know that a sustained global effort is needed if we’re going to have any hope of reversing its effects. In that spirit, many companies have announced carbon neutrality in their plans for 2007 including Virgin Blue, Google, Westpac and HSBC.
Many of these companies invest in schemes that plant trees to offset carbon emissions, or in energy-efficiency projects that would save the same amount of emissions as the company’s buildings, travel and other activities create.
In theory it’s a good idea – if the world were carbon neutral we would not be facing climate chaos, but is it all too little too late? In practice there are several problems. The most fundamental is that it is very hard to guarantee that the emissions saved are genuinely additional; the saving might have happened anyway.
This new found concern for the environment from these high profile companies raises the question – is it genuine? Or is it yet another cheap marketing tactic to today’s eco-sensitive consumers? Or perhaps just an idea made trendy by rock stars and film-makers.
Although becoming carbon neutral is not a Public Relations exercise, helping companies communicate their initiatives effectively is.
Duncan McLaren from Green Building made a good point when comparing the environmental efforts of the Rolling Stones tour to HSBC. The Rolling Stones were addressing their core activity when they proclaimed carbon-neutrality, whereas HSBC only offset their emissions associated with its own offices and travel amounting to a mere 700,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide.
To put this in context, the fossil fuel flowing through one single project for which HSBC is currently arranging finance – the Cheniere gas terminal in Louisiana – will generate more than 50 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. So offsetting a mere 700,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide doesn’t really cut it if they’re genuinely concerned about the current state of our environment and marketing their product accordingly.
Likewise, due to recent pressures from customers and staff, Virgin Blue has recently announced that they are the first Australian airline to have a comprehensive and certified carbon offset program, donating $500 000 per annum to abatement programs around the country. Is this enough? Is this program going to have a long term affect on green house admissions? Probably not, but it’s a start.
On a smaller scale, music festival Splendour in the Grass has offset its own greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production of the festival for the past few years. Last year they also offset 10% of all 17,500 festival attendee’s emissions and reduced the amount of carbon entering the atmosphere by over 272 tonnes. In keeping with this theme they announced this year that festival goers could purchase a ‘green ticket’ for an extra $3.50 and offset their greenhouse gas emissions associated with their travel to and from the show. Although made famous by rock and roll stars, this event is a perfect example of a genuine interest in saving the environment without cashing in on the new found trendiness of being ‘green’.
Experts in the field have suggested that companies take these three steps to guarantee a genuine commitment to minimising the environmental impact of their business:
“First, select or design offset schemes that prioritise energy saving and are subject to an independent and tough verification of their benefits. Second, extend carbon neutrality to their core operations, not just to buildings management and travel.
Third, give their political support to a tough international climate-change regime and measures that genuinely achieve additional savings.”

So is being green the new black? Some cynics would agree citing that businesses could be doing far more for the environment without the hidden marketing agenda. The question is – isn’t it far better to be doing something rather than nothing at all?