Carbon offsets make me angry for a couple of reasons. First, because offsets are a ridiculously inefficient market that is pretty much set up for poor compliance, and second, because individual consumers should not be asked to shoulder the burden of carbon emissions alone, even if we were good at it- which we aren’t. I’ll talk about both of these issues, and then I will tell you why I buy them anyway.
Carbon offsets are predicated on the idea that since you are the ultimate consumer, and therefore emitter, of carbon, you should be responsible for offsetting your impacts in emitting that carbon. In that word “should” lies the failure of this system. No one is forcing any of us to offset the carbon we emit; if we do it, its because a) we feel like we can afford to do it and b) we feel like we are doing the right thing. If we look at the long history of environmental disasters, how often have you seen us resolve environmental problems because people or corporations have decided that at an individual level its the right thing to do? Do companies stop dumping pollution into streams and rivers because they suddenly become aware it was killing the fish and making people sick and therefore they shouldn’t do it? Do offshore drilling companies write health and safety plans simply because its the right thing to do? Nope, the vast majority of them don’t, unless they are required to do it. That’s why we have regulations. Yes, public outcry can in some cases help push these companies in the right direction, but it still often and ultimately comes down to whether the laws are in place that define the limits. Carbon offsets are no different- there may be a small proportion of us that buy offsets because we believe its the right thing to do and we can afford to do it, but its not a strategy that will get us remotely close to where we need to be in terms of emissions reduction, because not enough of us are going to do it.
Another problem is that offsets don’t encourage behavioral change among the businesses that use these fuels. Even if we could get, for example, everyone who flies to purchase carbon offsets, in what way does that incentivize airlines to use less fuel, be more efficient, and actually reduce their carbon emissions? It doesn’t; and it means that you are paying for an emission that the company that delivers that service- the airline, for example, is NOT paying for, but is profiting from. And that, in my book, is pretty darned unfair.
Other criticisms that folks have leveraged at offsets include the issue of additionality- if you buy an offset, are you actually supporting an emission reduction or an step forward in energy efficiency that would not have happened but for your contribution? If not, it could be argued all you are doing is increasing somebody’s profit margin for doing something they would have done anyway. A valid point, and its worth scrutinizing offsets to make sure they can demonstrate additionality; and another argument for why regulation, which would require efficiencies and emission reductions more uniformly without anyone paying them to do it. Well, that’s probably not totally true- any regulatory strategy we put in place will very likely mean the companies forced to take these steps will pass some of these costs on to consumers- but we could do this in a way that is fairer and less regressive (eg, costs accompanied by rebates to lower income families to offset some of these cost increases to our most vulnerable populations).
Another criticism that is leveled at offsets but holds no water for me is the idea that offsets “assuage liberal guilt”- you feel bad that you drive your H3 around? Buy a carbon offset and make yourself feel better. Well, no- you should stop driving a gas guzzler and buy a more energy efficient car, and/or drive a lot less, is what you should do. You should cut back where you can. But if you can’t- I am not going to stop driving my car completely, its not feasible, nor am I going to stop flying to see my dispersed family- THEN you should do other things to offset what you cannot mitigate. I think the best response to this liberal guilt argument was provided by the excellent Grist columnist David Roberts, who wrote,
Offset critics often strike a moralistic tone, comparing offsets to medieval “indulgences.” Let’s be clear: That rhetorical gimmick makes no damn sense whatsoever. If there really were such a thing as sin, and there was a finite amount of it in the world, and it was the aggregate amount of sin that mattered rather than any individual’s contribution, and indulgences really did reduce aggregate sin, then indulgences would have been a perfectly sensible idea. The comparison is a weak and transparent smear, which makes me wonder why critics rely so heavily on it.
Robert’s point, of course, being that since carbon emissions are really a problem, and our individual behaviors really are an issue, then offsets are not some kind of made-up, guilt-massaging benefit to our conscience.
So, at the end of all this, where are we? Well, yes, I buy offsets, because I feel that I can afford to and that I should. And, like pretty much everything else I write about in here, I do think there is value in sending a market message that I think reducing carbon emissions is a very valid issue worthy of my dollars; however small that message is with my few bucks. But, I am not naive to the fact that offsets are variable, incremental, and above all, not the comprehensive approach we need to drive serious carbon emission reductions.
I used Carbonfund because they have a long-standing good reputation, lots of third-party certifications for their projects, a pretty easy tool for calculating your emissions, and they are focused on programs such as methane capture and reforestation that translate directly into CO2 reduction. There are several alternatives out there, including a growing number of more local- or state-driven programs, so its worth checking what’s available both locally and more broadly. Grist did an excellent article several years ago on many of the options available, and I think a lot of the info in there is still viable: you can read it here.