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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