Disney caught up in carbon offsetting controversy

Cross-posted from the Ecologist

William McLennan

Disney is aiming to reduce its direct greenhouse gas emissions by 50 per cent by 2012

Disney avoids emission cuts by investing $15.5 million in carbon offsetting schemes criticised by campaigners, including projects soon to be banned in the EU

Disney – the media company behind Mickey Mouse and world famous theme parks – has become the latest in a long line of multinational organisations to finance carbon offsetting schemes, which campaign groups say fail to reduce climate change and instead create ways to avoid cutting emissions.

The company recently admitted to spending $15.5 million in carbon offsetting schemes, including forest protection, reforestation and the destruction of industrial gases.

Carbon offsetting involves paying into a project that prevents carbon emissions from somewhere else or removes greenhouse gases from the atmosphere in order to compensate for your own emissions. The voluntary sector alone has ballooned in size over the past decade and was worth an estimated $387 million in 2009. There is also a bigger compliance sector, which allows countries to meet carbon emission reduction targets more easily by offsetting their emissions.

Voluntary offsetting has become increasingly popular with companies but critics say it allows them to continue as normal instead of trying to significantly reduce their emissions.

‘Companies should be doing all they can to reduce their carbon emissions through energy efficiency and adopting new processes. However, often the easiest thing to do is get a bit of green PR by buying offsets overseas and declaring themselves to be carbon neutral,’ says Mike Childs, head of campaigns at Friends of the Earth.

Disney controversy

Disney’s offsetting investments are part of their plan to achieve a 50 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by next year and, in the long-term, ‘zero net direct greenhouse gas emissions’. Its corporate website says the company only uses ‘high-quality offsets’ but several of the projects it uses are contentious. For example, $7 million was spent on forest conservation in Peru and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which campaigners believe may not lead to overall emissions cuts.

‘It is difficult to work out the extent to which investment is creating emission reductions beyond a business-as-usual situation. In the case of any forest conservation project, we have to ask, would the forest have been cleared without the extra money to protect it? Even if the answer to this is yes, that deforestation may just shift to a new, unprotected area, in which case emissions don’t go down overall,’ says Jane Burston, founder of Carbon Retirement, which highlights bad practice in the carbon offsetting industry.

Research by the University of Stanford estimated that as many as two-thirds of schemes under the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) do not provide additional reductions – in other words the project invested in did not create emission reductions that wouldn’t have happened anyway.

Disney also spent $3.5 million purchasing carbon credits from industrial processes, including the controversial destruction of the refrigerant gas, HFC-23. A ban on selling carbon credits from HFC-23 destruction has been proposed by the European Commission amid concerns manufactures are increasing production of the potent greenhouse gases in order to receive large payments for its destruction.

‘Disney’s commitment to taking full responsibility for their unavoidable emissions is hugely positive in principle, but some of the project types chosen have a history of not delivering additional emission reductions,’ adds Burston.

Disney is not the first example of large organisations investing in offsetting schemes, which may fail to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In 2010, the Vatican financed the development of a forest in Hungary, which did not materialise, and the dumping of iron ore into the South Pacific in an unsuccessful attempt to draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Disney declined to comment on the claims.

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