Refuting the carbon offset guilt myth — again

On a day when President Obama and President Hu announced new U.S.-China climate agreements in Beijing, the editors at the New York Times chose to give front-page visibility to a story that criticizes carbon offsets. Surely history will judge the progress announced by the American and Chinese leaders as more significant than the offset story. But the prominence of the offset article means it will float around for a while and thus it deserves a response.

The main premise of the article, which incidentally did not mention TerraPass by name, is that people buying offsets for air travel are merely assuaging their guilt, not reducing emissions. With respect to the guilt argument, we have regularly surveyed TerraPass customers and found this to be a myth. In fact, our customers see offsets as one part of a multi-faceted strategy to reduce their carbon footprint. They use public transportation when possible, conserve energy at home, and buy energy-saving products. Since such steps reduce but don’t eliminate emissions, TerraPass customers use offsets to balance out the remaining impact.

The Times’ story quotes a travel company director saying that people view offsets as a “get-out-of-jail-free card.” That image of irresponsible indulgence simply isn’t supported by the evidence. Every study we’ve done shows that TerraPass customers are among the most committed environmentalists. They take time to understand their impact on the planet and then take practical actions to live more sustainably. They are also active politically by urging their representatives to enact strong policies to deal with global warming.

Another implication in the article is that if offsets don’t solve the entire problem of aviation-related greenhouse gases, they are not worth doing at all. The reporter quotes a climate researcher, who says “Buying offsets is a nice idea, just like giving to a soup kitchen is a nice idea, but that doesn’t end world hunger.” No one buying an offset is under the illusion that this is the total answer. Travelers need to cut down on non-essential trips. Airlines need to pursue alternative fuels and more efficient aircraft. Governments need to regulate aviation emissions within cap-and-trade programs and invest in high-speed, low-carbon rail service between major cities. But all of those steps will take time to implement. Meanwhile, offsets can generate real emission reductions right away.

The article also questions whether offsets are actually reducing emissions. It cites several offset projects from other companies that did not work out as planned. This is a helpful reminder for buyers to shop carefully and choose offset providers whose projects are independently verified. TerraPass has made transparency the hallmark of our business. We list every project on our website and post the internationally accepted standards that we follow. Our landfill and livestock farm projects are reducing emissions of methane – one of the most potent greenhouse gases – at 20 locations around the U.S. Every day, our carbon management team is studying new projects that could be added to our portfolio.

As the media tries to cover the climate change beat, critical stories about offsets seem to receive a disproportionate share of attention. That may be part of the burden of innovation. However, if TerraPass and other industry leaders continue to emphasize transparency and accountability with our projects, offsets will remain an important source of emission reductions and a vital strategy in responding to climate change.

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  1. James Atkins - November 25, 2009

    For a short article with some facts, supporting offsetting:
    http://thebustard.blogspot.com/2009/11/case-for-offsetting.html

  2. Liz - November 25, 2009

    Thanks, Adam. I saw that article and appreciate your thoughtful response. Just some anecdotal evidence to support your argument — this was the first year I can remember, possibly in my whole life, when I did not get on an airplane at all. My longest vacation was a three hour train ride away. So there is a lot to be said for raising consciences. Guess our family’s tab for offsetting will be a bit lower this year, and hopefully the trend will contine!

  3. MK - November 25, 2009

    I saw the NYT article and immediately wondered: is a calorie not a calorie? In this case we are talking about greenhouse gas equivalents, but the concept is the same. I assume that credits are an easier, cheaper way to have the same effect (or lack thereof) on global warming. also I saw one quote that air travel creates 4 to 9% of the total GHG. Please clarify.
    Also, I think the soup kitchen analogy misses the point. You can’t solve a global problem by yourself, be it hunger or climate change, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do your part. And certainly giving to a soup kitchen has a true impact.
    Also I think that the NYT article overstates the effect of carbon credits on how often people fly. Flying is not cheap or particularly fun. Most people fly only for family obligations, vacations or work. It can be difficult to not do any of those things.

  4. Brian - November 26, 2009

    I’m glad to see this is still a discussion. However, I don’t see the connection where facets of terapass members’ lives (eg efficient light bulbs, carpooling) make a cap and trade program for their air travel work.
    It all sounds promising – partly. But the longer such a market takes to get in place, the more time the big players have to pervert it BEFORE it even starts. In five years, tell me this isn’t so – but I don’t believe I’ll be reading of your enthusiasm for cap-and-trade then. It’s unfortunate. But until we ditch the marketplace-as-fixer, we will continue to have a greed-driven economy, a greed-driven environmental policy, and a greed-driven Congress.
    By the way, I DID purchase an added fee for my recent airplane trip. But I did it specifically to show my daughter that this is all that people are doing, and that maybe we can help think of better ways when we spend time together.

  5. Brian - December 11, 2009

    thanks, but i’ve heard about all these arguments.
    the fact remains: burnt carbon is burnt carbon, no matter how much you pay for it.
    cheers,
    Brian S.

  6. Anonymous - December 12, 2009

    If all the money spent on carbon offsets does nothing more than raise awareness and effect some change in behaviors, then it is worth it.
    If it does nothing but fund other environmental projects that Terra Pass has in progress, then it is worth it.
    It seems evident that you cannot buy back your carbon emmissions from the atmosphere. If assuaging my guilt helps subsidize progress toward environmental solutions, then it is ok by me.
    I pursue those strategies I can to reduce my actual carbon footprint, but some things are not financialy feasible, especially in this economy. I can’t afford a new hybid car right now, but I can purchase small carbon offsets and that does help me feel less guilty.

  7. Brian - December 14, 2009

    RE: Feeling less Guilty
    Feeling less guilty is great. For you. If you have to buy that feeling, so be it.
    But that purchase does nothing for people in archipelagos drowning; it does nothing for people developing asthma by ports and airports; it does nothing to reshape a culture built on building waste; it does nothing to alleviate contaminated water sources — for those wh cannot afford to but bottled water.
    Buying indulgences is just that: an indulgence. Fixing a carbon-contaminated environment is something different.
    Great to start somewhere, but the follow-up is what really matters. And the danger of indulgences is that the buyer is relieved of following up.

  8. John - December 26, 2009

    But that purchase does nothing for people in archipelagos drowning; it does nothing for people developing asthma by ports and airports; it does nothing to reshape a culture built on building waste; it does nothing to alleviate contaminated water sources — for those who cannot afford to but bottled water.

    Brian,
    Actually, it does. I think Adam has continually expressed that the important feature of buying offsets is to generate NEW reductions, which should help all of these issues.
    How is this guilt? We live; we produce carbon; we should help to reduce carbon production. Trying to connect these three things to a negative guilt feeling is the job of the status-quo.
    -John

  9. Brian - December 27, 2009

    thanks, john, for your thoughts.
    but in order to purchase a carbon offset, isn’t the buyer’s activity producing a certain amount of carbon?
    and if so, how is this reducing the output of carbon?
    it isn’t. he’s simply buying guilt assuasion.
    if, instead, the buyer changed behavior PPRIOR to an activity for which he also purchased an offset, THAT would be reducing carbon output.
    you just can’t put money on clean air. it’s not a market. sorry!