Assumption 1: Global climate change exists; there is an overall trend toward melting polar ice, thawing permafrost, warming seas and overall slowly rising global average temperatures, in spite of variable seasonable cold weather.
Assumption 2: One of the primary causes of global climate change is the production of greenhouse gases by human activity on the planet, most notably carbon emissions.
Assumption 3: Since humans contributed mightily to this climate change trend, humans can work to change and/or reverse it.
That said, let’s talk about carbon offsets. A carbon offset is a financial instrument that targets a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
There are two markets for carbon offsets. In the larger scale compliance market, corporations, governments, or other entities buy carbon offsets in order to comply with caps on the total amount of carbon dioxide they are allowed to emit. In 2006, about $5.5 billion in carbon offsets were purchased in the compliance market, representing about 1.6 billion metric tons of CO2e emissions.
In the smaller scale voluntary market, individuals or companies purchase carbon offsets to offset their own greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, electricity use and other sources.
For example, an individual can purchase carbon offsets to compensate for the greenhouse gas emissions created by personal air travel, personal auto use or personal electricity consumption. Some eco-conscious companies even offer carbon offsets as an up-sell during the sales process so that customers can mitigate the emissions related to their product or service purchase. In 2008, about $705 million of carbon offsets were purchased in the voluntary market, representing about 123.4 million metric tons of CO2e reductions.
These offset funds are then used to financially support projects that reduce the emission of greenhouse gases in the short- or long-term. The most common project type is research or build out of renewable, green energy infrastructure, e.g. wind farms, biomass energy or hydroelectric dams. Other project types can include energy efficiency projects, the destruction of industrial pollutants, mitigation of landfill methane, and implementation of forestry projects.
I am not a fan of carbon offsets.
In both large and small scale, offset users are not directly reducing their carbon emissions. They are not using less, functioning more cleanly or complying with standards. They’re simply investing compensatory funds in a good cause to atone for a profligate operation or lifestyle.
At a corporate level, rather than meeting government standards for greenhouse gas emissions – and the USA’s are rather lax – they’re missing the target, and then buying themselves back under the cap with offsets, not unlike obtaining a papal absolution. Critics also claim that Industrial companies profit from doing very little to reduce their carbon footprint, or from gaining carbon credits on the basis of questionable efficiency gains from which they have already benefited substantially.
At a personal level, rather than buying offsets for the SUV they drive, or the 2,500 square foot house they heat with oil-generated electric heat, wouldn’t it make more sense to take mass transit, live in a smaller home and heat with solar and natural gas? Emit less carbon overall – benefit the planet directly – and live guilt-free rather than in perpetual propitation mode.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I’m actually not a particularly strident eco-freak. I do believe, though, we should all live as cleanly and wisely as possible in our little corner of the planet, so we pass it on in a state we can be proud of to future generations.
This post is for Blog Action Day 2009.