Carbon Offsets: Wash Away the Carbon, Wash Away the Guilt?

Carbon offsets are “a reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide or greenhouse gases made in order to compensate for or to offset an emission made elsewhere.” [1] In other words, if I fly on a jumbo jet halfway around the world for an “eco-friendly” vacation, approximately one ton of carbon is emitted into the atmosphere for every 2,000 miles I fly, so I can make up for the huge amount of harmful emissions spewed out by my travel by paying someone or some entity to install solar panels or wind farms, plant trees, etc.

Problem solved, right?

Not so fast.

Do carbon offsets actually make a difference? Or are they an artificial construct designed to help well-off people wash away their guilt while polluting the planet?

Carbon offsets can, in many circumstances, meet the goal of reducing or negating net carbon emissions. But the carbon offset market is rife with opportunities for abuse through the monetization of natural systems as well as outright fraud. More regulation and standardization is needed to insure that the consumer is “getting what they paid for.”

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Years ago when I was lucky enough to see Al Gore speak on his “An Inconvenient Truth” book tour, the big takeaway for me was him painting climate change not just as a huge threat, but also as a tremendous opportunity: a threat to the survival of humans and other species, but also an opportunity for far-reaching innovation (and the monetary rewards that come with inventing “the next big thing” that end up saving the planet—a not-so-transparent sales pitch to the rich climate deniers that there was potentially a lot of money to be made in this arena).

But as we all know, opportunities for huge economic rewards are also opportunities for an equal level of fraud and deception, resulting in the global business elite often being the “winners” and indigenous cultures and lands in third-world countries being the “losers.” In fact, monetization of natural systems can be thought of similarly to monetization of indigenous cultures: an immoral appropriation of something that isn’t yours, with the sole purpose of making money off of it while potentially altering it significantly if not destroying its very essence in the process.

“When people talk about monetizing, they’re usually talking about some sort of scheme,” says David Heinemeier Hansson. “Because anything that needs to be monetized can’t just be simple. If it was simple, you wouldn’t need a word like monetize. You’d just be making money selling a service or product.” [2]

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Seemingly eco-friendly projects such as the creation of new hydroelectric or geothermal facilities, installing new solar farms and wind farms, planting forests of new trees, and other carbon offset schemes—while “green” on their surface—often have significant environmental impacts of their own, over and above the net reduction in carbon emissions. In other words, a project looks great through the singular lens of carbon emissions, which is all the tourist purchasing carbon credits is really interested in; but when looking at the project from a broader perspective, it’s a potential environmental disaster.

The best critical quote I found related carbon offsets is this:

“Some say (carbon offsets) are the modern equivalent of the medieval practice of paying for indulgences. In other words, it would be better to work out a way of not sinning at all…” [3]

And therein is the basic rub with carbon offsets. Which path is the moral high ground—to go ahead and commit the heinous crime, apologize to the court for your impropriety, pay the minimal fine from your fat wallet, and do your time in a white collar prison only to be released early for good behavior? Or to simply have never committed the crime in the first place?

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The Desert Tortoise: Survival Threats, Protection Efforts

The desert tortoise is an iconic species found across the deserts of the US southwest as well as northwestern Mexico. It is also the official State Reptile of both California and Nevada.

“Desert tortoise” actually refers to two different species—Gopherus agassizii and Gopherus morafkai—with Gopherus agassizii found entirely in the US and Gopherus morafkai found in Mexico as well as in parts of Arizona.

The desert tortoise was placed on the California Endangered Species List in 1989 and was listed as “threatened” on the Federal Endangered Species List in 1990.

Threats to Survival

Although they appear to be built like tanks covered with armor and can retract into their shells to protect themselves against predators, there are a number of factors that make desert tortoises a fragile species. They are slow moving, slow growing, and have low reproductive rates. Juvenile survival is low (with only about 2 or 3 tortoises out of 100 hatched eggs surviving to adulthood), and females do not breed until reaching the age of approximately 15-20 years old. They are impacted by some larger predators directly, but smaller predators such as roadrunners, ravens, and fire ants can also severally impact desert tortoise populations by targeting eggs and young. Ravens are particularly a problem, as the population of ravens increases as the population of humans in the desert increases (as does their production of trash, which the ravens feed off of).

For many decades, these animals were frequently removed from their habitat by humans and taken home to the suburbs and kept as pets, contributing to a decline in population. Later, as the public became more educated about the illegality of taking desert tortoises, some people thought they were doing the right thing by taking the animals back to the wild and releasing them. However, pet tortoises frequently carry infectious diseases which are easily transmitted to natural populations. In addition, captive-bred pet tortoises were also released into the wild, negatively impacting the natural population because of their different genetics and behaviors. Humans are even a direct threat, and the simple act of handling a tortoise in the wild can spread Upper Respiratory Tract Disease which has seen a marked increase in recent years.

Other threats to the desert tortoise include OHV use, grazing, military exercises, mining, agriculture, energy development, and invasive species.

Protection Efforts

Because of its iconic nature as well as its status as a threatened species, there are many things being done to help protect the desert tortoise and educate the community. A few examples include:

As we continue to expand our footprint across fragile desert ecosystems with more roads and more traffic on existing roads, desert tortoise mortality due to collisions with vehicles is increasing. One very simple yet highly effective solution is a type of low fencing technique called Desert Tortoise Exclusion Fencing. A ~36 inch tall piece of fencing is buried 12 inches below the ground, to prevent tortoises from digging underneath; and left to stand 24 inches above the ground—tall enough to prevent the low-slung desert tortoise from surmounting it, yet low enough to not impede the free movement of many other animals.

The Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee is a non-profit working to conserve desert tortoises and educate the public. Founded in 1974, they protect ~5,000 acres of desert tortoise habitat. The largest piece of land under their protection, the Desert Tortoise Natural Area, is a preserve in the western Mojave Desert encompassing 39.5 square miles. In 1980, the BLM designated the area as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern as well as a Research Natural Area.

Established in 1975, the Desert Tortoise Council is a non-profit organization that promotes desert tortoise conservation across the southwestern United States and Mexico. They offer several training courses covering topics for researchers and volunteers such as field techniques and health assessment procedures.

The Living Desert in Palm Desert, California, offers a Desert Tortoise Information and Youth Education Program which provides educators with a variety of resources to help teach about desert tortoises in their classrooms. They also offer a Desert Tortoise Adoption Program in partnership with the California Department of Fish and Game, allowing people to adopt captive-bred desert tortoises that are unsuitable for reintroduction into the wild.