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What do climate deniers and the Olympics have in common?

For one thing, they seem to have their science wrong (or at the very least, need to hire a better publicist).

A couple of weeks ago, Bloomberg reported that the London 2012 Organizing Committee (LOCOG) is “dropping” its carbon offset scheme, which it had formally pledged as part of its bid to host the 2012 Olympics. I don’t know that “dropping” is really the right term – if one reads a bit deeper into the details, LOCOG is “passing” some of the offsetting responsibilities to a partner organization (BP’s non-profit arm, Target Neutral), but LOCOG decision makers have definitely made a conscious, deliberate decision to back away from its previous proposal for hosting a carbon neutral event.

David Stubbs, the head of sustainability at LOCOG, reportedly said:

>Officially, if you want to go down [the route of] certified carbon-offsetting, all projects have to be overseas, so if we plant a lot of trees in Essex that just doesn’t count. Because the games are in the U.K., we wanted to maximize the Games locally. Doing formal offsetting would be diverting things.

There are so many issues with this statement, it’s hard to know where to start. First, if there aren’t any verified carbon offset projects in the UK, that’s quite a shame. What have all those originators in the UK been up to? Still, with the carbon footprint of the London games, I would guess that developing a new verified carbon offset project from scratch could be quite cost effective. It would be cost-effective here.

Second, while keeping spending local is an admirable goal, the world is not, actually, flat. We are talking about a global event contributing to global climate change. You know, there’s one planet, which is why it’s a global effort to protect it. I can’t think of an event for which it would be more appropriate to choose an international selection of carbon offset projects.

Third, planting trees down the road “doesn’t count” not because it’s down the road (literally). It’s because planting trees is an exceptionally slow way to reduce atmospheric carbon. Athletes from around the world will be jumping on planes in the here and now, while those trees in Essex will start to have a measurable carbon reduction impact in 20 years or more. That’s why you can’t get verified carbon offsets from Essex trees in time for the games. It’s because there won’t be any carbon to verify.

Now, I don’t want anyone accusing me of hating on trees. I think tree planting is great and forestry conservation is of paramount importance. I also sympathize with Stubbs’ desire to promote local initiatives. But even beyond Stubbs’ unfortunately misleading rhetoric, there are some deeper issues here…

**Going Deep:**

Stubbs’ comments imply that we either choose offsets or something else, which is a false premise. Purchasing offsets should always be part of a comprehensive solution. Companies, organizations, and event planners need to understand their baseline footprint, and then take steps to reduce that footprint. Not to pat ourselves on the back or anything, but we’ve been saying that for some time now.

Establishing a carbon footprint reduction strategy is the fundamental premise of any strong sustainability effort, not to mention, it’s the only way to be as cost-effective as possible. But in the end, there will be a remaining footprint. If you choose to do so (and we would argue, you should!), you can then acquire offsets to account for the remaining emissions.

Local initiatives are great. I wish everyday that we planted more trees, picked up more trash, and replaced old light bulbs with more energy efficient ones. But some of these initiatives simply aren’t “offsets” because they don’t produce quantifiable emission reductions. And there are good reasons for why that is – the bodies who came up with verification standards are making them as rigorous as possible so that they can truly hold offsetters accountable for the emissions reductions they proclaim to achieve.

**Going Even Deeper:**

In a comment to Bloomberg, Stubbs remarked: “We never said we would have a total offsetting program. It’s a wider approach to compensate for residual emissions.”

Making excuses won’t fool anyone, least of all the people who actually follow and care about sustainability issues. The Bloomberg reporter more or less accused LOCOG of backing down in order to avoid the heavy financial burden: an estimated $4.4 million. It’s not an unreasonable possibility – offsetting the event (e.g., travel for athletes coming to the conference) is an inherently expensive task. It’s also not unlikely that, having run the numbers, LOCOG realized that the budget did not account for such a substantial expenditure and therefore, decided to “divert” its attention (and finances) to something else.

Regardless of what the reasons are, even if financial justifications aren’t the primary driver, it is truly a shame to see such an organization as public and well known as an Olympic committee back down from its original conservation commitments. There are other large-scale events who have made similar pledges: the America’s Cup sailing competition, to be hosted in San Francisco and the Baltimore Grand Prix, to name a few. It would be a real disappointment if other leaders were to retreat from their commitments in a similar manner.

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