The Problem with Offsets

Carbon offsets are an alluring commodity to compensate for our consumption. But as Paying More for Flights Eases Guilt, Not Emissions by Elisabeth Rosenthal on the cover of today’s NY Times illustrates, carbon offsets may cause as many problems as they claim to offset. As the article notes, offsets have the counterproductive byproduct of allowing us to feel we can emit CO2 and pay our way out of the problem. Like ubiquitous weight-loss programs carbon offset companies are selling false hope.

Don’t get me wrong I think carbon offsets can be useful – truly getting mitigation for ineradicable activities. But it is a razor’s edge – useful like electric shock therapy is useful…not for everyone. Buy credible offsets – but only after you have meaningfully reduced your carbon footprint. Then look to reduce more still. Instead, all too often, offsets are becoming a ready excuse to not change our behavior. Why eat less when you can just take this little pill? So we fly as much or more and offset.

For Mr. Francis of Responsible Travel, the final straw came when he noticed that carbon offsets were being offered by private jet companies and helicopter tour operators, which generate very high emissions per passenger. “The message was, ‘Don’t worry, you can offset the emissions,’ ” he said. “But you don’t really need to see Sydney from the air, do you? And you can travel in a commercial airliner.”

We drive as much or more and offset. We have pets, we insist on keeping the house too warm in winter and too cool in summer – but hey, I’ve got a carbon offset certificate that says my resulting carbon footprint zeros out – what a relief! NOT. If we are serious, whether we like it or not, no matter how difficult, we just need to consume less, travel less and reinvent a “full life” that is on a strict carbon diet. Otherwise our children’s lives will be ruined by our delusions of righteousness. More of us need to think like Mr. Dickinson:

Mr. Dickinson of the nonprofit Carbon Disclosure Project said that rather than buying offsets he had sharply scaled back on flying and was instead taking trains or conducting meetings by phone or teleconference. He said that if he owned an airline, he would now be diversifying into other modes of transport.

Because there is just no other meaningful way forward:

“Buying offsets won’t solve the problem because flying around the way we do is simply unsustainable,” said Ms. Kollmuss, who has researched airline offsets. A recent study in Britain concluded that one flight from London to Los Angeles produced more carbon dioxide per person than the average British commuter produces in a year by traveling by train, subway or car.

So what can I say, for peet’s sake, download Checklist Toward Zero Carbon, do what you can, edit it and make it your own and pass it on. Reduce, reduce, reduce and purchase offsets if you like in moderation.


2 Responses to “The Problem with Offsets”

  1. Jon Stevens Says:

    Hi, I am very impressed by your writing skills and I was wondering if you can give me some pointers to use on my own blog. Feel free to reach me at my email address.

  2. Paul Says:

    If offsets were more narrowly defined as coming only from the actual production of fossil free energy, they would be very good.

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