While the Howard Government didn’t believe in all that climate change nonsense, it was worried about voters having a contrary view long before 2007, when Cabinet reluctantly signed up to an emissions trading scheme two or three elections down the track.

So it established the Australian Greenhouse Office to oversee a number of programs designed to give the illusion it was doing something about climate change when it was doing nothing at all. The AGO’s staff were dedicated folk committed to doing something real about climate change, but their primary purpose was to give Howard Government ministers something to point to whenever people complained they weren’t taking global warming seriously. The AGO programs themselves — a mixture of hand-outs and voluntary programs for business to sign up to if they wanted to demonstrate their triple bottom-line credentials, never did much, but they weren’t designed to.

Among these was Greenhouse Friendly, which kicked off in 2001. Greenhouse Friendly is still going, in the AGO’s successor agency, the rather more hardcore Department of Climate Change, and according to the DCC website, enables Australian businesses to “market greenhouse neutral products or services, deliver greenhouse gas abatement and give Australian consumers greater purchasing choice.”

The wording pretty much gives the game away. Greenhouse Friendly is about individual products or services that are greenhouse neutral – not the businesses themselves. That is, you get the Greenhouse Friendly tick even if you’re the most carbon-intensive industry on the planet – as long as you have a single product that is carbon neutral. At 18 companies, Greenhouse Friendly hasn’t been an overwhelming success. Nor is the range of products and services on offer that compelling. There are “green” beers from Cascade and Lion Nathan (the Cascade one indeed tastes like a green beer), carbon neutral paint from Dulux; JB Were offers environmentally-friendly financial services and you can watch Mel and Kochie safe in the knowledge that all their emissions are being offset.

But it’s the identities of some of the companies that can declare themselves “Greenhouse Friendly” that interests. Three airlines — Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin — are all there, because they offer travellers carbon-offset fares. Aviation is greenhouse-friendly indeed, being the single most climate change-intensive form of transport. We haven’t reached the level of intense scrutiny of aviation yet that now applies in Europe, but our airlines must worry that sooner or later Australians, too, will start to wonder about the wisdom of pumping out carbon at altitudes that immediately maximise their heat-trapping potential.

And then there’s Australian Paper’s Envi range of carbon neutral certified paper, manufactured — although the Greenhouse Friendly site doesn’t mention it — at the Wesley Vale pulp mill in Tasmania.

A Crikey reader has listed some of the materials consumed in papermaking and paper coating processes at Wesley Vale and wonders how on earth anything coming from the place could be certified as carbon neutral:

Thousands of tonnes of calcined clay from the USA.. The calcining process is heavily fossil-fuel dependent as it uses fuel oil or natural gas to drive off water and to burn organics – which are converted to carbon dioxide.

Thousands of tonnes of oil-derived synthetic latex shipped from the mainland and overseas.

Thousands of tonnes of sodium hydroxide and hydrogen peroxide shipped from NSW. The manufacture of both is electricity intensive (which means coal-fired in NSW).

Hundreds of tonnes of oil-derived synthetic polymers shipped from the mainland and overseas.

Thousands of tonnes of imported pulp. In addition to the paper making process, the coating operation at Wesley Vale coats paper from the sister mill at Burnie. Most of the fibre used to make paper at Burnie is fully bleached kraft pulp. The pulp is imported from North America, Finland, Chile, and other countries, and there is virtually no way of verifying whether this pulp was produced under sustainable and/or carbon-neutral conditions.

Thousands of tonnes of fuel oil, diesel and petrol is consumed in shipping and transporting the pulp and all these chemicals, often great distances, to Tasmania.

Thousands of tonnes of regrowth-derived hardwood woodchips. These regrowth trees were happily sequestering CO2 until being cut down by Gunns and sold to the mill.

Like many of the “Greenhouse Friendly” products and services, the carbon neutrality of the Envi products is obtained from offsetting carbon abatement projects, rather than genuine reductions in the carbon intensity of the product. While Greenhouse Friendly at least provides some rigour to the assessment of abatement projects to make sure they’re legitimate and actually work, offsets do nothing about the real task of finding more energy-efficient and less carbon-intense methods of production, transport, usage and disposal. There’s also the problem of additionality — how many carbon abatement projects would have occurred regardless of support from a Greenhouse-Friendly company, meaning there is no net carbon offset anyway? For all we know, Australian Paper may be purchasing offsets via plantations it would’ve purchased anyway.

The point of an emissions trading scheme is that we shouldn’t need these half-baked programs to curb emissions. But that assumes we actually get an effective trading scheme.