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The Earth's climate is changing, and humans are responsible. Our planet has warmed about 1°C since the Industrial Revolution, and is expected to warm further in the coming years. Sea levels are rising and extreme weather is becoming more frequent, threatening human health, livelihoods, food and water supplies, security, and economic growth.
The problem is our passion for coal, oil and natural gas. These resources have powered the development of our civilization – lifting billions out of poverty and creating a safer world. But the cruel irony is that the gases released when we burn these resources, which accumulate in the atmosphere, are now threatening the foundations of everything we've built.
At Healthspan, we take the climate crisis seriously. So we've begun a new programme of understanding our carbon emissions, reducing them, and negating the remainder by buying carbon offsets.
Carbon offsets are investments in lowering the amount of greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere. They compensate for carbon emissions in the present by reducing carbon emissions in the future. There are many kinds, which include everything from planting trees, to funding renewable power projects, to distributing energy-efficient cooking stoves, often in developing countries where traditional funding sources for these kinds of projects are limited.
There's no global or national regulation in most countries as to what can be called a 'carbon offset'. Anyone can sell one. But there are solid independent certification systems, like Gold Standard and the Verified Carbon Standard, which monitor the results of offsetting projects to ensure they're effective and prevent fraud.
To get certified as effective, an offset needs to meet several criteria. They need to be real, meaning that the project exists. They need to be verifiable, meaning that a third party is allowed to inspect the results.
They need to be enforceable, meaning a punishment if the project isn't completed. They need to be permanent, meaning that the changes put in place by the offset scheme can’t easily be reversed after the project is finished. They need to be additional, meaning that the carbon-reduction steps taken in the project would not have been taken anyway.
Finally, they need to be leak-proof – meaning that the emissions are really voided, not shifted elsewhere.
Offsets are the last step in our emissions reduction strategy. We're measuring our carbon footprint and looking for steps to reduce it as much as we can while still meeting strict safety and quality standards.
It wouldn't be fair to talk about carbon offsets without noting that they're somewhat controversial. Mathematically speaking, an effective offset will work as advertised – removing future carbon from the atmosphere. But ethically speaking they're more of a grey area. Is it right to ask someone in a developing country to change their way of living so that you can go on holiday?
In 2006, writer and environmentalist George Monbiot compared offsets to the sale of indulgences by the 15th-century Catholic Church – financial donations to the church that would reduce the buyer's time in purgatory.
On the other hand, many high-quality offsetting projects come with co-benefits to the health and economy of the local area. A reduction in air pollution, for example, or safeguarding local ecosystems.
Whichever side of the debate you fall on, it's fair to say that offsets disassociate people from the consequences of their actions. At best, they prevent an overall increase in emissions: they don't reduce the total volume generated.
That's why, at Healthspan, offsets are the last step in our emissions reduction strategy. We're measuring our carbon footprint carefully, and looking for steps to reduce it as much as we can while still meeting strict safety and quality standards.
The only emissions we offset are the ones that we can't yet reduce, and we're encouraging our suppliers, customers and regulators to build a world where everyone has more options to cut their carbon footprints, rather than simply compensating for them.
Healthspan has invested in various carbon offsetting projects, including two wind farms in South India
A: We probably started just over two years ago, when we wanted to take a fresh look at our packaging, and then everything naturally cascaded from that. We wanted to find a more sustainable alternative to the pharmaceutical blister packs made of plastic.
So we talked about and explored what might be more sustainable, and agreed that's the direction we wanted to move. Once the business was committed to that route, we took the opportunity to go further, and started putting together a framework to measure our broader impact. Once we did that, it was clear that we were duty-bound to do something about that impact.
We've had complete board buy-in: it's something that lots of people wanted to do but didn't know how. So the framework allowed us to have a way of doing it. It's not as complicated as people might think – you put someone in charge, you measure your business' impact and then you create an action plan on the back of that. Once you do that, then you're on the road to being more sustainable.
And it's probably worth saying that we are very much at the start of this process. We're doing some things better than we were in the past. And we've got big plans for the future, including developing a framework for measuring the environmental impact of our sourcing and supply chain.
A: It's important, when looking at offsetting, that the right offset is chosen. Not only do we want to offset the remaining carbon that we can't yet reduce, but we also want to have a positive impact on communities. So when choosing our offsets, we looked at the additional impact each scheme has.
So we've got a wind power project in Tamil Nadu, India, which directly stops coal being burned, but also has job creation and economic growth benefits for the area. We have a solar water heating project, again in India, providing in-house hot water from a renewable source to homes and businesses. The solar products are manufactured in Bangalore, providing employment in manufacturing, distribution, installation and maintenance.
There's also a project in Brazil to prevent deforestation in the Amazon, which helps the local economy move away from rainforest destruction and towards sustainable and profitable agriculture.
The infrastructure to reduce emissions to zero is improving, but it's not in place yet. We need to reduce our impact wherever we can, and we believe offsetting is the best way to deal with the carbon we can't yet reduce.
A: We're doing a lot. We've moved all the lighting in our office to low-energy systems. We're replacing plastic in our packaging with greener, renewable alternatives to reduce our reliance on hydrocarbons. We've moved to more sustainable FSC-certified paper stock on our mailings.
We're going to manage our waste better. And we're launching more vegetarian and vegan alternatives to some of our best-selling lines.
Then there's the governance space. We're going to be transparent and open, and get independent accreditation of our actions. Sustainability is now an agenda item at board meetings, and everyone has to have a "sustainability" or "risk mitigation" objective for each quarter.
Finally, we have staff green champions – a team that meets every couple of weeks to come up with new ideas to make our company more sustainable.
When I first started on my sustainability journey, I was quite anti-carbon-offsetting because it seemed like an easy way of "getting out of jail free." An ideal situation is that when we measure impact, we can say, "well, we're no longer going to do any of the things that cause impact", or, "we're going to reduce them right down, so they're negligible."
But that is frankly impossible today. The infrastructure to reduce emissions to zero is improving, but it's not in place yet. So we need to reduce our impact wherever we can, and offsetting is the best way to deal with the carbon we can't yet reduce.