August 15, 2008

Companies face crackdown on electricity greenwash

Someone appears to have wised up to the fact that companies "buying wind power" are in fact getting exactly the same electricity as those who don't ...

From David Adam in The Guardian (U.K.), August 13 (again, thanks to National Wind Watch):

Dozens of companies face having to report embarrassing sharp increases in their carbon pollution under government plans to crack down on greenwash.

The move could undermine the environmental claims of firms such as BT, which have invested heavily in so-called green electricity tariffs to cut their carbon footprints.

Under the proposed changes, companies using such green tariffs, which are also popular with eco-friendly domestic customers, will no longer be able to claim massive carbon savings by using power coming from renewable sources.

BT, which could be forced to double its reported carbon emissions and to scrap an ambitious target to cut carbon 80% by 2020 under the plan, is lobbying heavily against the move, and says other companies back its position. Johnson and Johnson, Vodafone and several banks including HSBC also buy green electricity tariffs.

Hilary Benn, environment secretary, said the change was to make the system more transparent and to ensure that such tariffs brought genuine environmental benefits. "It is increasingly difficult to demonstrate that buying a renewable electricity tariff is offering additional carbon emissions reductions," he said. "Businesses signed up to green tariffs based on the evidence available at the time, but their choices have been producing only limited additional renewable generation capacity."

Individual consumers opting for green tariffs may also "not have been generating the environmental benefits they anticipated", he added.

Green tariffs have become a popular way for firms and individuals to cut their carbon footprints. They exploit the 5% of UK grid electricity generated from clean hydroelectric and wind sources, which suppliers claim they can effectively ringfence and sell separately.

In 2005, the government said companies buying such renewable electricity tariffs could report them as producing zero emissions. It hoped that wide take-up of green tariffs would drive investment in further renewable sources.

But environmental campaigners and energy experts have long questioned the benefits of some green tariffs. Harry Morrison of the Carbon Trust, which advises companies on climate issues, says the market in them has been "a bit cowboy" and needs clearing up. He compared the use of green tariffs to the sale of carbon offsets, with concern over transparency, double counting and additionality – ie whether they cut carbon emissions over and above what would have happened anyway.

He said: "Many companies bought these tariffs in good faith but there are no guarantees that they actually save carbon. They didn't pay much of a premium for the carbon savings they could claim in their marketing statements, so they have basically been given a free ride."

Morrison said many companies were concerned about how the government's changes would affect their green credentials and corporate image. It could also cost them money. From 2010, thousands of UK companies will be forced to calculate, publish and reduce their emissions as part of a domestic carbon trading scheme. "They're worried about being ranked badly. Nobody wants to come bottom of a table of their peers," he said.

Richard Tarboton, energy and carbon programme director at BT, said: "This is a serious problem for a number of companies who have followed the government's guidelines and gone out and purchased green electricity, and are now being told that green source is no longer valid."

BT, one of the country's largest users of electricity, has used the zero-carbon rating given to green tariffs to claim it has reduced its emissions 58% over the last decade. Tarboton said the new rules would see its reported emissions double, and that the increase would pose "communication" problems for the firm.

He agreed that the existing scheme was flawed but said the suggested solution put too much responsibility on energy suppliers and let customers off the hook. BT says the answer is better labelling, with different tariffs given a carbon rating similar to electrical appliances such as dishwashers. It held a meeting of 30 companies this week to discuss the idea.

Defra, the environment department, which announced the changes to the company reporting guidelines in June, now says it will launch a consultation on the proposal. A spokesman denied this was down to corporate pressure and said the department had always planned to consult.

wind power, wind energy, environment, environmentalism