Holly Hughes, the Communications Officer for Vita – an Irish NGO uniting social justice in Africa with climate action in Ireland – talks us through carbon offsetting and how the actions we take on a local level must have a global impact
I hail from Clonakilty. It is a small town but a big-hearted one. One that has always had its gaze extended outwards, searching for ways to offer the hand of friendship or support to those in need. That spirit of generosity, of realising the importance to unite local action with a global cause has stayed with me throughout my life but has most recently found expression in my role as Communications Officer for Vita – an Irish NGO making an astounding difference.
Vita is a development organisation unlike any other, uniting social justice in Africa with climate action in Ireland. Working primarily in Ethiopia and Eritrea, Vita creates sustainable livelihoods for rural communities, who, dependent on the land and agriculture for their survival, are now struggling with the extreme and unpredictable weather conditions of climate change. Supported by partners such as Irish Aid and the European Union, Vita both mitigates these phenomena and provides families with the training, support, and resources to adapt to them.
Access to clean water, food security, and renewable energy are the primary means through which Vita is delivering sustainable change and thriving rural economies to vulnerable communities. However these programmes – while bringing life-transforming change to those who need it most – also hold climate and environmental benefits too as they reduce carbon emissions from being released into the atmosphere. Saving trees from being cut down and used as fuel, they prevent thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide – the cause of global warming – from being emitted. This saving of trees results in a unique way for Irish people to take impactful climate action through a world’s first platform of not-for-profit carbon offsetting.
Carbon offsetting is the neutralising of carbon emissions – created by the burning of fossil fuels – by preventing an equivalent amount of carbon from being emitted somewhere else. Every tonne of carbon not released into the atmosphere is called a carbon offset and this is a product that can be sold. It is a balancing mechanism as, for every tonne of carbon a person or business emits, they can buy a corresponding offset to neutralise this emission. Vita sells its offsets on the voluntary market and is accredited by the UN-affiliated Gold Standard.
Vita creates carbon savings through its development programmes and it is this innovation, which makes its model so unique and so attractive to businesses looking to go further in their climate responsibilities. The social impact of their low-carbon clean water project for example, delivers on four of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Almost half the water wells in Africa are broken, causing women and children to walk countless miles every day in search of drinkable water. This is often impossible to find and so vast amounts of firewood are instead needed to boil dirty water. The health risks of unclean water are well-documented and illustrated by the fact that waterborne diseases are still the leading cause of death for children under five in Africa. Therefore, fixing a water pump to provide a village with clean water holds untold benefits to the village’s health, economy, and future prosperity. However, it also greatly reduces carbon emissions, as clean water doesn’t need to be boiled. In fact, a fixed water pump saves 1,000 tonnes of carbon from being released each year. This creates 1,000 carbon offsets that anyone to buy. What makes this operation completely unique is its self-financing sustainability, as all profits generated from carbon offset sales are then reinvested to fund more low-carbon programmes that reach more communities.
Thus, carbon offsetting in this way is a simple, easy, and cost-effective means of achieving carbon neutrality while supporting social justice at its most impactful level. An innovative solution both to the inefficiency of traditional aid models and the climate crisis, Vita’s carbon offsetting has most recently been recognised by being shortlisted for an Irish Times Innovation Award. Amongst the companies who have offset through Vita are world leading enterprises including Microsoft, Toshiba, Dublin City Council, An Post, and Keogh’s Crisps.
Offsetting itself is a straightforward process that simply requires the measurement of a business’s or individual’s carbon footprint through their air travel, employee mileage, and energy usage. This can be done on any number of online carbon calculators (Vita has its own on our website). Once you know how many tonnes of carbon you are responsible for emitting each year (the average Irish person has an annual footprint of 11-17 tonnes compared to an Ethiopian’s 1.5 tonnes) you then buy an equivalent amount of offsets to neutralise it. A Vita offset costs €5.50 per carbon tonne – a price that gives one family in Ethiopia or Eritrea access to clean water for life. This means that for an individual to offset their footprint for any given year, they pay only €60.50 – a fee that ensures eleven families will have continued access to clean water.
Now, what is a carbon tonne? To quantify this, let me use my own father as an example. My father often flies to London for work. His return trip from Cork creates less than 0.2 tonnes of CO2 emissions. If he flies every week of the year, being the hardworking man he is, this means his business air travel amounts to 9.8 tonnes annually – costing €55 to offset. Therefore, not only is offsetting a straightforward process, it is also cost-effective.
This is a vital point for anyone looking to make positive changes to their business but feeling they don’t have the budget, knowledge, or skills to enact it. The questions around climate action are often not why but how? What can one individual or one business really do? We still have to get to work each day and, in West Cork particularly, public transport doesn’t always allow for leaving the car at home. We still need electricity to run our offices or light our homes. We still need to attend that international conference or perhaps the well-deserved family break in the sun. Deliveries still need to be made, budges still to be adhered to. Change is not instantaneous and moving to a decarbonised society will not happen overnight.
However, even as our focus must be on reducing our footprint on this planet, carbon offsetting is a welcome support to help us get there. Boosting employee morale, demonstrating much-needed leadership and fostering positive engagement with suppliers and customers, it is a simple way to become less of a problem and rather a part of the solution.
With all of our efforts, we must remember that the climate emergency is not just an existential or an environmental one – it is a human emergency too. The actions we take on a local level must have a global impact and protect the communities who are bearing the brunt of a crisis they have not caused. Working with Vita is one way to ensure this. It is one way to do what West Cork people have always done best – think local but act global.