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Carbon Offsets: Off or On Target?

Sep 10, 2008
As global warming finally seeps into the public consciousness, carbon offsets are fast becoming the next hot new thing (no pun intended). People love them because they let you buy your way out of your carbon impacts. Write a check and erase your guilt. And I've always been a little troubled by this and by the whole idea of carbon offsets themselves.

For one thing, you can't always trust all the offset providers that are suddenly popping up all over the place. Some are likely to be scams. Others offer no real measurements of the carbon they prevent. Others are just taking your money for projects that would have happened anyway. There need to be some standards on both sides of the equation, i.e. how much carbon the consumer actually needs to offset for each activity they engage in and how much carbon each provided offset actually offsets. Apparently, Britain is going to create and apply some of these standards soon. We probably need something like that to happen in the U.S.

A lot of questions remain about carbon offsets but meanwhile the world seems to be rushing to embrace them. I worry that people will think they can use offsets to simply buy their way out of the problem rather than actually solve it. You know, we can purchase all the carbon offsets in the world, but if in doing so we think that gives us carte blanche to continue to spill our own individual carbon loads into the atmosphere, the atmosphere is still going to contain that carbon. Tree-planting offsets may absorb some of that carbon eventually (those trees will take time to mature to full carbon absorption capacity ).

Building renewable energy generation may help, but with overall energy demand continually rising, they may not offset the impacts of traditional energy supplies so much as they merely supplement those supplies with cleaner sources of power.

I guess I hope we come to see carbon offsets as a stop-gap solution and not as a permanent answer that licenses us to keep on keeping on albeit without any guilt or responsibility for our own behaviors. It really feels to me like they're a temporary strategy to reduce some of our impacts and help finance a bigger, more impactful renewable energy infrastructure, a voluntary carbon tax of sorts, rather than a solution. The only real answer to climate change that I see is to make changes in how we use energy so that we use less of it at all times, regardless of whether or not we're offsetting, and to develop and widely disseminate those technologies that permit us to make these changes without the kinds of sacrifices that turn people off by recalling a Paleolithic lifestyle.
About the Author
James Nash is a climate scientist with Greatest Planet (www.greatestplanet.org). Greatest Planet is a non-profit environmental organization specialising in carbon offset investments.

James Nash is solely responsible for the contents of this article.
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