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Carbon Offsetting: Fleeting fad or sustainable trend?

It was a sunny morning in September of 2005 when, at a tiny alfresco restaurant overlooking Monaco’s Port Hercules, a small group of press gathered for a breakfast conference hosted by brokerage firm Camper & Nicholsons International (CNI).

The small talk and cappuccino sipping subsided when the announcement was made: CNI had partnered with British environmental firm The CarbonNeutral Company to offset the carbon emissions generated by its staff’s and yachts’ attendance at the Monaco Yacht Show.

The press responded with awkward shuffling and polite applause. It was the yachting industry’s first major announcement regarding carbon offsetting and not many present were familiar with the concept, much less understood why such a reputable firm would approach a topic as taboo as the environment.

By the 2011 Monaco Yacht Show, however, ‘carbon-neutral’ was a familiar adjective in the yachting community.

The show itself was in its sixth year of being carbon neutral and the process of carbon offsetting was adopted and offered by leading charter and brokerage houses, several marinas, yards and agencies worldwide, as well as a growing number of charter yachts.

The classification society RINA also recognizes carbon offsetting through its Green Plus certification.

How being carbon-neutral works

In theory, carbon offsetting is simple: calculate the estimated greenhouse gas emissions generated from using any fuel-burning or emissions-creating mechanism such as a vehicle, yacht, airplane or machinery, and offset this estimate by funding emissions-reducing initiatives elsewhere.

The concept of carbon offset is rooted in the Kyoto Protocol, an agreement between nations to attempt to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases to prevent dangerous interference with the earth’s climate.

In 1997, the Protocol set binding targets for the European Union (EU) and 37 industrialized countries (including the US) to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by a total of 5.2 per cent over a five-year period.

While the countries – with the exception of the US, which signed but did not ratify the Protocol – agreed to begin reducing greenhouse gas emissions through national measures – such as expanding renewable energies – the Protocol introduced market-based mechanisms to assist in the process. One of these mechanisms is the concept of emissions trading, which has become known as the ‘carbon market’.

On the carbon compliance market, countries exceeding their greenhouse gas emissions may purchase or trade carbon credits from countries with an emissions deficit.

The UN administers carbon credits for the international Kyoto compliance market, but there are now a variety of smaller voluntary markets monitored by other organizations such as the Verified Carbon Standard and the Gold Standard.

On the carbon compliance market, countries exceeding their greenhouse gas emissions may purchase or trade carbon credits from countries with an emissions deficit. One credit equals one metric ton of greenhouse gas emissions. In the same way, businesses also can trade on the spin-off markets, offering carbon credits for using cleaner production methods to businesses with significant emissions… and the need for some green marketing.

The Kyoto Protocol went into effect in 2005, the same year CNI announced its carbon offsetting program. In an industry that publicly recognizes the oxymoronic nature of calling anything that produces emissions through its build or use environmentally friendly, the burst of carbon offsetting options were noticed, but not quickly adopted or publicised.

They were, however, supplemental to a host of other new significant and tangible forays by owners, designers and builders into sustainability, efficiency and environmental responsibility, aided by the 2008 crisis and the need for fuel efficiency.

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