Ben Elgin, writing in this week’s BusinessWeek, begins his article “Another Inconvenient Truth“, about carbon offsets, by mocking the Academy Awards for declaring “all their celebrity presenters to be ‘carbon-neutral.'” He goes on to say:
“A growing number of organizations, corporations, cities, and individuals are seeking to protect the climate—or at least claim bragging rights for protecting the climate. Rather than take the arduous step of significantly cutting their own emissions of carbon dioxide, many in the ranks of the environmentally concerned are paying to have someone else curtail air pollution or develop ‘renewable’ energy sources. Carbon offsets, as the most common variety of these deals is known, have become one of the most widely promoted products marketed to checkbook environmentalists.”
Carbon offsets are getting a lot of hype, and I worry that they’re helping send us all back to a gentle sleep where we have nice dreams of a world without environmental problems—as long as we just spend a little more money. The online travel site Expedia, for example, has partnered with TerraPass so that airplane travelers can, for a fee, “balance out their carbon footprints.”
Now, when I tell my friends that I’m not traveling as part of No Impact Man, they say, “But you can just offset it, right?” Wrong. Donating a little money to plant a tree does not remove the carbon dioxide mainlined into the stratosphere by airplane engines (not that donating money to plant trees is a bad thing). And no, spinmeisters, the presenters of the Academy Awards are not carbon neutral—because there is no such thing as carbon neutral. If you burn fossil fuels, even if you buy offsets, you still contribute to global warming. If you take food from one starving person and try to make up for it by giving the food to another starving person, there will still be a body.
OK, I’ll admit that that’s a little macabre and perhaps stating the case too strongly. Carbon offsets can actually be a good thing, as long as they’re used to mitigate unavoidable environmental harm and not to rationalize avoidable harm. If I could only feed my family by driving to my job, I like to think I’d, first, choose an efficient car model and carpool and, second, buy carbon offsets as a way to give back to the planet what I can’t help taking from it.
But what still worries me is that consumers don’t read the fine print, or that offset marketers don’t give them the fine print to read in the first place, and the fact that there is still no replacement for plain, old reducing our impacts is greenwashed out of the message. Plus, there’s also the problem of what actually is done with the money you throw and whether it ends up going where you think it should, but for that, you should read Elgin’s BusinessWeek article.