The Unsuitablog

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VCS: Making Greenwashing Easier

Posted by keith on September 12th, 2008

Vast Carbon Source

Everyone loves carbon offsetting, don’t they? The environmental campaigner trying to green their lifestyle; the holiday maker cancelling out their flight emissions; the large corporation pretending that it is dramatically cutting its emissions…offset and the atmosphere is your oyster — everyone’s happy!

I’m kidding, of course.

Carbon offsetting is, well I don’t need to tell you what happens if you have a storage problem in your house and you build a big shed — it fills with crap, doesn’t it? If you’re producing thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide the metaphorical “shed” is a mixture of all the nice projects you’re sponsoring to build wind turbines, plant trees, send energy saving lightbulbs to the poor people and maybe throw a few tonnes of carbon dioxide underground for good measure. But it can’t happen properly unless you have some standards, and a nice catchy name, and a serious logo…as long as you are still running the show.

The Voluntary Carbon Standard is big industry’s answer to the age-old problem of keeping the economy growing by shifting the problem elsewhere. Short of bagging up all the CO2 thrown out by manufacturers, energy producers, deforesters, miners and countless other greenhouse gas producing activities, the VCS has allowed corporations to throw a massive cloak over their activities, all garnished with some lovely official ribbon:

“The Voluntary Carbon Standard Program (VCS Program) includes the standard (VCS 2007) and the Program Guidelines 2007. VCS Version 1 (v1) was released on 28 March 2006. VCS Version 2 (v2) was released on 16 October 2006 as a consultation document and did not replace VCS v1 as the applicable standard for project developers and validators and verifiers. The VCS v2 consultation document has been withdrawn. This is the VCS 2007 that replaces VCS v1 as the applicable standard. Additional guidance related to the VCS 2007 is included in the Program Guidelines 2007.”

That little snippet from all sounds very formal and above board, and that’s because the companies involved in creating the documents do this kind of thing all the time in audits, accounts, projects and so on. As long as they stick to standards, no one can accuse them of trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes.

But that sort of misses the point entirely. VCS is about offsets, not reducing emissions.

VCS was set up by The Climate Group (I mentioned their work here) and another “Astroturf” known as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, which I will attack fervently in a future post, along with IETA, who basically provide the tools so that businesses can trade carbon (i.e. spend their way out of guilt).

It gets even more sinister when you look at the people who put the standards together:

The VCS Steering Committee volunteered long weeks of their company and personal time over a two year period to develop the VCS. The following people participated on the Committee:

* Jan-Willem Bode, Ecofys
* Derik Broekhoff, World Resources Institute
* Mike Burnett, Climate Trust
* Robert Dornau, SGS
* Steve Drummond, CantorCO2e
* Mitchell Feierstein, Cheyne Capital
* Yoshito Izumi (Observer), Taiheiyo Cement
* Mark Kenber, The Climate Group (co-chair)
* Adam Kirkman, WBCSD
* Andrei Marcu, International Emissions Trading Association (co-chair)
* Erin Meezan, Interface
* Ken Newcombe, Goldman Sachs
* Mark Proegler, BP
* Robert Routliffe, Invista
* Richard Samans, World Economic Forum
* Marc Stuart, Ecosecurities
* Einar Telnes, DNV
* Bill Townsend, Blue Source
* Diane Wittenberg, Californian Climate Action Registry

Just to the take the first 5 in the list (it’s in alphabetical order, and there’s no way of telling how much each person contributed):


Business sector energy advisors

World Resources Institute

Think tank that promotes economic growth as a “solution” to climate change

Climate Trust

Large scale offsets seller


Business certification consultancy


Emissions trading platform provider

Can you see a pattern emerging here. Try looking at the others in the list, too: it’s all about business as usual, and we’re not fooled.

For more information on the folly of offsets, go to

3 Responses to “VCS: Making Greenwashing Easier”

  1. Steve Riise Says:

    Before slamming voluntary offsetting out of hand,
    I wonder whether KeithF has read the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007? (Bear in mind here that IPCC was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize 2007 for its efforts to “build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.”). But, maybe they just pulled the wool over our eyes???!!
    The IPCC report makes it clear that the regulated response towards mitigation (UNFCCC) will not be enough – so we really need to welcome initiatives to offset carbon emissions, especially those that are based on robust third party audited standards, by which you can actually verify if those emissions reductions (or removal enhancements) actually took place.
    I think it’s also important to point out the error in the first comment that VCS grants VCUs (the carbon credits of VCS) “for GHG emission reductions or removal enhancements that have not yet occurred and been verified”. It most certainly DOES NOT! (What would you say about greenhouse gas programs which grant carbon credits before the emission reductions and/or removal enhancements take place?)

    That brings us to another part of the posting – why should we bother to have standards? To me, this seems pretty obvious J. The VCS has probably done more than anything else to put the so-called ‘carbon cowboys’ out of business!

    Moving on to the comment about the people and companies referred to – I must confess that I just don’t get it! Surely, in any field, it is essential that a standard is written by people who SPECIALISE in the subject, people who can come up with an understandable and credible International standard.

    Developing a global standard must involve an enormous amount of expert thought – and work. And let’s face it, you would have to be very naïve to believe that a credible and reputable organisation such as ISO (International Organisation for Standardization) would let a worthless standard through its rigorous accreditation process. Get real!

    Another bit that surprised me was the statement that “VCS is about offsets, not reducing emissions” so I did a bit more research. Whereas offset is a breakeven situation (the amount of emissions produced is the same as the amount removed), reduction of emissions goes further than that situation (you actually remove more than you produce). Actually, according to ‘VCS 2007’, “emission reductions or removal enhancements” are quantified as “the difference between the GHG emissions and/or removals from GHG sources, sinks and reservoirs relevant for the project and those relevant for the baseline scenario”, being the baseline scenario what would the project be without new and improved low carbon technologies/methodologies? VCS goes even further. VCS projects MUST “establish and apply criteria, procedures and/or methodologies to assess the risk of a reversal of a GHG emission reduction or removal enhancement (i.e. permanence of GHG emission reduction or removal enhancement)”.

    In an ideal world, we could make an enormous difference to climate change fairly quickly. Aeroplanes would stop flying anywhere, all cars and trucks would be taken off the road, no new manufacturing businesses would start-up and existing ones would have to radically reduce their operating hours. Sadly, of course, the ideal world is completely fictitious. Even regulators are dragging their feet. These things won’t happen – in my lifetime at least – so we urgently need global voluntary initiatives like the VCS to help to lessen the damage we’re causing as soon as possible. There are plenty of opinions around but not enough folk channelling efforts into real world solutions like the VCS.

  2. keith Says:


    Al Gore was a co-winner of the Nobel Peace prize, and look at the flabby non-solutions he’s proposing. Yes, I have read the IPCC AR4, and some of the conclusions are conservative to say the least – of course they will never propose anything that threatens the status quo, after all the IPCC represents the nation states of the world, who in turn represent the corporations of the world.

    In an “ideal world” there would be no industrial civilization, greenhouse gas levels would be around 280ppm CO2e and the great natural habitats would remain pristine. Your definition of ideal seems to imply that industrtial civilization is part of it – who’s ideal is that? Certainly not one in which humanity has a future.

    In a *better* world, all nations and companies would reduce their emissions as far as possible, including cutting into profits because – as we all know – profit is just another word for resource use excess. Only after draconian measures had been taken would offsetting be considered.

    As the article quite clearly says, offsetting is just an excuse for inaction. In the absence of offsetting, something would actually have to change.


  3. Brandon Says:

    I understand were you are both coming from.

    Kieth, a well written article that points out a lot of the mistrust seen in offsets. Yea they are run by some of the global big business. But look at least they are it is a step in the right direction.

    Since our whole world is focused around the “economy”, what better way to incorporate nature into it by including carbon. By reflecting that carbon has a price with offsets we can BEGIN to realize a monetary value for nature.

    As bad as that sounds, its the only way in the near future we can prevent large degradation to our environment. Environmentalist have been trying at least since the 70’s with other tactics and none of worked so far. Then when carbon “footprinting” and offsets come in the scene it attracts huge attention. You have to go with what works.

    Look at the success the US had with curbing acid rain in the 90’s. When the implemented a cap and trade, (a tougher one than is being proposed for carbon right now), we say SOx and the acid rain problem all but disappear.

    I real problem with people like you Kieth is that you rip the efforts being made today, instead of making suggestions on how to improve them. Environmentalism and business have been at opposite ends for to long. I don’t understand how anyone who wants to protect nature could see the “begining” (and mind you this has really only been happening rough 2000-2002) of carbon offsets as a bad thing.

    Also, with offsets you are required to be conservative or “underestimate your GHG reductions”. So in reality an offset for 1MtCO2 is more likely around 1.1-1.2 MtCO2.

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