Making the perfect the enemy of the good

ikea-bag.jpgThe New York Times digs into the trend of companies who make it easy for their customers to purchase offsets or pay for other environmental goods at the point of sale. Expedia sells flight offsets. IKEA charges for plastic bags. Whole Foods markets wind power cards. Etc.

And the article contains the customary criticism from environmentalists who worry that offsets are a distraction from more substantive action:

“Helping consumers buy offsets is feel-good environmentalism that lets people duck out of responsibility for changing their behavior,” said Michael J. Brune, the executive director of Rainforest Action Network.

Mr. Becker of the Sierra Club is blunter: “People view offsets as papal indulgences that let them make environmentally bad decisions.”

It’s easy to see the logic of these assertions. It’s just as easy to see the flaw. Namely, people are already making bad environmental decisions all on their own. Most of us have sixth-degree black belts in ducking responsibility. We don’t need encouragement from offsets, and there’s absolutely no evidence to suggest that offsets do, in fact, cause people to become environmentally lazy.

That said, I can understand the frustration that many environmentalists feel. From their point of view, society as a whole has to make serious, large-scale changes to its habits if we are to achieve aggressive, near-term progress on climate change.

Unfortunately, society doesn’t want to make serious, large-scale changes to its habits. People pretty much like things the way they are now, and they don’t feel much urgency to change. This has always been the problem, and it’s a big problem. Even people who buy offsets are still deeply embedded in an energy-hungry economy. In light of this frustrating fact, it’s easy to knock offsets.

The article is actually pretty evenhanded about this issue: “Most environmentalists concede that consumers are unlikely to make radical changes. But many also contend that the programs let consumers vote with their pocketbooks for carbon constraints.”

And it ends with a nice quote about the upside:

As Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, put it, “These programs get the idea across that individuals are neither blameless nor helpless, and can really make a difference.”

I’d go a bit further. It would be really interesting to survey consumer attitudes on a number of issues related to climate change, and attempt to gauge differences between offset buyers and non-offset buyers. My hunch is that offset buyers would be quite a bit more engaged on a whole host of climate change-related topics, even controlling for other factors such as geography and political persuasion.

Mind you, I’m not saying offset buyers are more engaged than career environmentalists. That’s not the right comparison set. Rather, I’m guessing offset-buyers — our customers — are more engaged than the average concerned citizen.

The survey I’m envisioning would cover a range of issues. Basic science: how well do people understand the mechanisms and effects of climate change? Personal contribution: do people know their own carbon footprint, and do they know where it comes from? Policy sophistication: how well do people grasp basic policy issues such as the notion of putting a price on carbon, the carbon intensity of various energy sources, global sources of carbon emissions, etc.? Personal conservation: what measures have people taken in their own lives to reduce carbon emissions?

I don’t really know how such a survey would turn out, but I’m pretty confident it would demonstrate at least one thing: people who buy offsets are not using them to justify environmentally bad decisions.

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1 Comment

  1. duff - March 14, 2007

    Great points! This is another reason why activists should study marketing.

    Seth Godin in All Marketers are Liars encourages those who would try to change consumer behavior to direct their efforts not at the average consumer, but at the early adopters.

    The early adopters will–if you’re lucky–spread the idea virally for you, and it will be adopted by the masses later (often in a more palatable or watered-down form). To try to reach the masses directly is usually a waste of time and effort.

    Activists should also read Ray Kurtzweil, esp. the first few chapters of The Singularity is Near. What we forget is that trends often take off exponentially, and we tend to think linearly. While it seems nothing is happening for a long time at first (e.g. organic farming for the first 20 years), all of a sudden your dad is calling you up to tell you to eat organic (when you started an all-organic food co-op 8 years ago…true story that happened to my friend! :)

  2. Doug - March 14, 2007

    Excellent points at the end of the article regarding people who buy offsets are far more likely to be environmentally concerned than the average consumer, and are not just using them to justify environmentally bad decisions.
    I have a road-tripper TerraPass. I bought it because I drive 25,000 – 30,000 miles a year (job related), and I need a decent car.
    However, I also put in compact fluorescents for all our frequently used lightbulbs. We’ve lowered our thermostat settings. I’m increasingly purchasing organic and environmentally responsible products. I’m a member of Sierra Club and contribute to a number of environmental charities.
    I’ll need to drive 25,000 miles regardless, that isn’t going to change, so I bought an offset because its better than not buying one. However, I’m fairly confident that I’m more environmentally aware and responsible than the average consumer. And I’m guessing the same is true for the majority of offset buyers.

  3. Kevin - March 14, 2007

    I am thrilled to have found TerraPass. I am in a car lease for an 8-cyl BMW for another 10 months. As soon as I can turn that car in I will get a hybrid. My only option to do something now is TerrPass.

    This article is wrong.

    Thank you,

  4. Ron - March 14, 2007

    putting aside the “settled” science of what is causing climate change – i do find it somewhat off-putting that a firm like Whole Foods sells indulgences to wealthy consumers who can afford to buy out of season organic fruits and vegtables. wouldn’t it be better to just buy in season and locally grown produce? i am worried that this is becoming a class issue.

  5. FD - March 14, 2007

    I think you hit the nail on the head with the pro-offset argument. There are a lot of people in all walks of life that are concerned about the environment, but they can’t all go out and make huge changes to their lifestyles all at once. I would love to go get a prius, install a ground-source heat pump, insullate my home to the hilt, add solar hot water, and join a local produce co-op, but I don’t have $60k just laying around and I work long hours that don’t allow me to contribute to the co-op as required. So I keep driving my 35mpg car, bike when I can, keep the thermostat as low or high as my wife will allow, buy CFLs, and purchase offsets. It isn’t my long term solution, but it is one I can afford today. Doing something is better than doing nothing.

  6. Gabe Petlin - March 14, 2007

    I’m growing tired of incessant finger wagging at offset buyers. No body suggests that voluntary offset buying is going to single-handedly solve global warming! I bought an energy efficient water heater and keep the temperature on the “warm” setting. I vote for politicians that advocate mandatory caps on carbon and strong renewable energy mandates. Most of my appliances are Energy Star rated. I put CFLs around the house and I even put CLFs in the lights for the common areas of my building (they cost $1 at the local super market.) I walk to work the majority of the time. I recycle religiously and YES I buy a 6 ton TerraPass for my 30 MPG Jetta. My carbon diet is slimmer than the average Joe, but why not offset the rest? I’m not an environmental saint, but offsetting is the responsible thing to do –not a cop out. A few times a year a fiend will ask what the blue sticker is on my car and I tell them which I believe is helping to educate them. I guess the lesson here is reduce your foot print as much as you can and offset the remaining emissions. I challenge the finger waggers to disclose their own environmental habits.

  7. Steve - March 14, 2007

    I agree with the viral aspect of offsets. There is tremendous power in the simple fact that there are millions of potential voters out there that will eventually turn to offsets. Not out of guilt per se, but as part of something that is do-able NOW. No waiting for the demise of the oil barons and warmongers. A guiet storm of true concern one person at a time. I don’t think anyone aware enough to purchase an offset would think for a moment that it is the solution to global warming. But it IS something….and it’s good. It’s moving forward. It’s a glimmer of hope.

    It’s absurd to point a finger at folks who are trying to do whatever they can and call them indulgent and irresponsible…especially from those who call themselves environmentalists. A million people flapping their gums will not reduce CO2…but a million people with terrapasses will.

  8. Drew - March 14, 2007

    Echo that these are great points. I drive a 6cyl. SUV (with a TerraPass that likely exceeds my annual driving), have a home Terrapass, buy 12,000 kwh of wind energy, Have a TP for all my business/personal air travel,use CFLs, etc.

    I would turn the laziness/”buying conscience” argument 180 degrees. I see several hybrids a day on my commute (makes me happy). However, I haven’t seen one hybrid- ever- with a Terrapass (and I do look for it). I fear this may be because people think that they hybrid itself is enough. It is very important and a good statement. But it still emits a significant amount of GHGs. It bugs me that I and others live a 100%+ offset lifestyle with other investments in efficiency and there are some who would dismiss that as less effective or important than the Prius driving person who guiltlessly leaves lights on in unoccupied rooms because they are CFLs and that’s “okay”.

    Sure offsets aren’t the complete answer (sufficient), but until a zero emmission lifestyle is possible, much less affordable, I would argue that they are a necessary part.

  9. Allison - March 14, 2007

    Another argument in favor of offsets: they establish the concept that generating CO2 does carry a cost.

    I agree totally that shaming and fingerpointing will not solve our environmental issues, as these tactics have not, nor ever will, solve any issue. It is sad for me to see activists of all sorts get caught up in their own “ideals” of exactly how everyone else should be. It polarizes people who actually share the same goal and would eliminate positive steps, such as offsets, towards said goal. We all instinctively know that we have to band together. Are people more likely to choose to team up with groups judging them and calling them names, or those who peacefully and respectfully offer them positive steps towards the goal?

  10. john kurmann - March 14, 2007

    Adam, I think you make excellent points here. I do want to challenge you to think differently about one point no one else has touched on, however. Here’s what you wrote: Unfortunately, society doesn’t want to make serious, large-scale changes to its habits. People pretty much like things the way they are now, and they don’t feel much urgency to change. This has always been the problem, and it’s a big problem.

    It seems to me that it’s not a matter of people liking the way things are and being unwilling to change but an inability to imagine things being truly different. I think this is partially due to the fact that very few of the people alive in the U.S. has ever known anything other than the Fossil Fuel Blowout, with cheap and abundant energy readily available. People literally don’t know how to live differently.

    At a deeper level, I think our assumptions about human nature are a huge obstacle to change. These assumptions are embedded in the work and message of most mainstream environmental movement organizations, too. What I mean is that, deep down inside, most folks think:

    People are selfish and greedy and short-sighted and destructive by nature, so it’s no wonder the world is as mucked up as it is. What else would you expect?

    As long as someone assumes that to be true, very few will go ahead and change their own lives much. Why bother when it won’t make much difference in the face of everyone else’s continued destructiveness?

    It’s also just plain difficult to go against the dominant flow of one’s culture. I’ve likened it to finding oneself in a great mass of people, the vast majority of whom are all moving in a single direction. If you decide you want to go a different direction, it’s going to be difficult to make any progress–only the obstinate and the misfits will persevere. This remains true even if more and more individuals within the crowd start trying to move in that new direction–as long as their numbers remain small and they stay isolated from each other. If, for some reason, the number of folks wanting to move in another direction continues to grow, and they begin to link together, it will become progressively easier for them to make progress. If they ever reach a tipping point, a critical mass, you could suddenly see the great mass of the crowd moving toward that new direction. That’s really our only hope of saving the world, in my opinion.

    Now, what causes people to decide they want to go in a different direction in this context? When it becomes clear that going in the dominant direction isn’t giving us the results that we want and cannot continue. When people become dissatisfied, when the cultural explanations for why things are the way they are–and, consequently, why we must move in that direction–begin to break down. When the evidence of the real, tangible world undermines one’s worldview.

  11. Tirzah - March 14, 2007

    I completely agree with the notion that people prone to purchase a terrapass are also more likely to be environmentally aware as a whole. I certainly did not purchase the terrapass so as to justify using a gas hog. I actually use my little mazda only four days out of the week – and don’t drive too far even then. I would love to buy a hybrid – but as a college student, it is a tad out of my price range. If people don’t do what they can where they are (instead of waiting for the perfect situation) we will get no where.

  12. Mike C - March 14, 2007

    Environmentalists too often ignore economics. The comments in the NY Times article exemplify this weakness. Carbon offsets are a voluntary tax. Because they are voluntary they defacto mean that Terrapass users are more environmentally conscious than your average Joe. I wish they were mandatory, so people could see their true carbon costs.
    We need more economic studies that show people that climate induced disasters like Katrina (assuming some of that was caused by climate change) have specific, tangible influence on average Joe’s pocket book (i.e. higher insurance premiums and higher U.S. budget deficits for the clean-up).

  13. Jacquelyn Branagan - March 14, 2007

    There is one thing no one has mentioned. There are MANY people (and I am one) who cannot afford to buy a hybrid vehicle, or put in new appliances or other environmentally friendly devices. Hey – I would buy organic food if I could afford it! I do what I can – drive as seldom as possible (I have a 1985 Subaru that gets 25 mpg – and that is 1985!), buy organic when it is on sale, seldom turn on heat, use cfl lightbulbs, and so on. Carbon offsets are beyond my budget. And I am NOT an exception. There are many who can’t afford to do more than just get by the best they can. Our whole system, economically especially, is really topsy turvy and that is part of the root of the problem.

  14. Caroline Kettlewell - March 14, 2007

    Because there are so many ways in which our daily lives and daily choices affect our carbon (and other) impacts, and because there is no one-step solution to minimizing one’s carbon impact, incremental change is for most of us the only feasible option. So I drive a hybrid AND I have a TerraPass (and a TerraPass sticker on the back) AND I try to combine my errands and outings, as much as possible, into the fewest number of trips possible. Not perfect, true. But each incremental change I have made in my own life has led me to think more deeply and globally about my choices and their impacts and to think also, “What can I change next?” Scolding people for their shortcomings is unlikely to reap much benefit. On the other hand, if millions of people are encouraged and and supported in making incremental changes, then change itself will gather momentum.

  15. Emily - March 14, 2007

    I quit PETA for several reasons, but a big one was the fact that they seem to have the same mindset that some environmentalists have embraced. In the stuff they sent to try to get me to join, PETA had some flier about how it’s better to do something than to do nothing, and that giving up meat a couple of times a week would save a few animals, which was a good starting point. I thought, “What a common-sense approach! Perhaps I can do this!” So I joined the group, hoping to get recipes and support for shifting away from meat and toward a vegetarian diet.
    As soon as I joined, I was inundated with newsletters and mailings condemning anybody who wasn’t 100 percent vegan 100 percent of the time. I tried their overnight-vegan approach, but I crashed and burned and was back to bacon double cheeseburgers in a matter of days. I can tell you from experience that it’s a lot easier to go vegetarian if you cut out the meat first and just live on string cheese until you figure out what to do with that carton of tofu you bought at Wild Oats.
    Carbon offsets are kind of the string cheese of environmental responsibility: They’re not ideal, but they’re better than bacon double cheeseburgers.
    Instant perfection is usually not a realistic goal, particularly on a mass scale.

  16. veektor - March 14, 2007

    -Distrusting the media is always a good place to start, but the Times has a good point. As your title indicates, desire for perfection can be the enemy of the good — carbon offsets have proven value, and thankfully Mr. Gore’s visibility is better than his example, but expecting too much will lead to disappointment. Offsets do nothing about other problems of energy overconsumption — for instance, Mr. Gore’s hedonism fuels Osama’s lifestyle, too. There’s another moral question — for example, Mr. Gore, Messrs. Kennedy, et al SHOULD feel guilty, untrustable, and hypocritical when they choose to waste resources lavishly but then tell everyone else they should cut back. A scam is a scam, even though carbon offsets are a great step. Thanks for your work.

  17. Anonymous - March 14, 2007

    Well the guy who wrote abotu his BMW and that Terra Pass was the only thing he could do was WRONG. The article is not WRONG. How many TerraPass users have also REDUCED their miles driven? How many take public transport more? How many have also signed up for en4ewable energy thru their public utility? You don’t have to ‘buy a hybrid” as your only option!! You have to STOP DRIVING! And how many Terra Pas susers also buy for their airfare, or buy TWO passes so that they MORE than offset their car?

  18. Anonymous - March 14, 2007

    TerraPass users should also be promoting an increase in the cost of a gallon of gas in the U.S. Why doesn’t TerraPass also promote that? I fhtey truly wanted to do more than simply offset… offset is really an easy “feel good”, like buying organic food that is trucked over thousands of miles to get to your national food chain.

  19. Aaron A. - March 14, 2007

    The article was pretty good about showing companies that live the green life, rather than just pitching “indulgences” to their customers. They didn’t have any evidence to suggest that offsets de-motivate buyers; all they had were quotes from some of the more, shall we say, hard-line environmental groups.

    Emily (post #15): I had a pretty similar experience with PeTA. I’m following a more vegetarian path than I used to, but I refuse to be harrassed into 100% veganism, or looked down upon by those who have.

    Whether they know it or not, that attitude really hampers environmentalists, vegetarians, and other self-described progressives; there’s always somebody with the “greener than thou” attitude complaining that moderate change isn’t acceptable. Unfortunately, activist groups and political parties tend to be easy prey for extremists, because they’re the only ones passionate enough about The Cause to devote their full-time energy to it.

    Anonymous (#17): Just by reading the posts above, I think it’s pretty obvious that TerraPass buyers are taking other measures to reduce their consumption. Posts #5, 6, 8, and 13 all mention their use of Compact Flourescent Lighting instead of traditional bulbs. #’s 11, 13, and 14 drive conservatively, and #15 has cut her meat consumption. Marginal change is still progress, and it’s generally easier to sustain.

  20. Aaron A. - March 14, 2007

    Oh, and as long as I have the floor, I’d just like to mention that alternative energy projects like wind farms often provide benefits beyond CO2 reduction. I’ve had the chance to visit a windfarm in rural Alaska, where most homes are still powered by diesel generators and heated by oil. When winter hits, temperatures drop well below zero, and gas is $5.00 per gallon, so needless to say, fuel costs are substantial.

    The residents say that the windmills have provided a gradual but much-needed reduction in their electricity bills (also discussed here). In villages where most of the family’s food is obtained by hunting or fishing, and little or no paid labor is available, this is no small benefit.

    — A.

  21. Harold Haight - March 14, 2007

    TerraPass was my FIRST move in trying to do something personally to combat global warming. My second was forwarding info about TerraPass to many, many people on my Address Book list and trying to interest them in joining.
    And it’s gaining momentum. The other night, I went to a meeting of where I got several good ideas for further personal action. Every chance I get, I send messages to my representatives, local, state and national to do something effective about global warming.
    So you might say, I started with TerraPass and go forward with ever more active behavior. I’ve even got my wife interested. Cheers!

  22. Tracy Carroll, Founder Flexcar & NetGreen - March 14, 2007

    The funding of grand, cost and time effective carbon offset projects will spur innovation and create the economies of scale necessary to create a new non fossil fuel dependent economy.
    The funding we supply will impel innovation and economies of scale creating a positive feedback loop – allowing each and every one of use to reduce personal footprint more and more.
    Offset you impact and seed the a new less fossil fuel dependent economy. This will come back to you in the form of more energy efficient products, services that displace material needs (i.e. Flexcar), renewable energy, and many more innovations.
    Here’s another fold – our new sustainable economy needs $$. The big, big dollars will come When the fossil fuel dependent economy notices this budding economy. Money follows money. Let’s start the flow.
    The funding of cost effective, High Quality Offsets are a critical piece of the climate change solution, and because offsets can be readily implemented using existing technology while spurring innovation, they make a difference today.

  23. Tracy Carroll, Founder Flexcar & NetGreen - March 14, 2007

    The funding of grand, cost and time effective carbon offset projects will spur innovation and create the economies of scale necessary to create a new non fossil fuel dependent economy.
    The funding we supply will impel innovation and economies of scale creating a positive feedback loop – allowing each and every one of use to reduce personal footprint more and more.
    Offset you impact and seed the a new less fossil fuel dependent economy. This will come back to you in the form of more energy efficient products, services that displace material needs (i.e. Flexcar), renewable energy, and many more innovations.
    Here’s another fold – our new sustainable economy needs $$. The big, big dollars will come When the fossil fuel dependent economy notices this budding economy. Money follows money. Let’s start the flow.
    The funding of cost effective, High Quality Offsets are a critical piece of the climate change solution, and because offsets can be readily implemented using existing technology while spurring innovation, they make a difference today.

  24. Rena - March 14, 2007

    I work 50 miles away on contract (my bad choice).
    When my contract is up, I will look for a job within biking distance (my good choice). Until then, I terra pass, because every day I am acutely aware of the war in Iraq, and almost daily my carpool and I talk about global warming. It’s nice to know that until my contract is up, I can do more than talk.

  25. Annie Beckett - March 14, 2007

    How about if we all do whatever we can and not allow either ourselves or others to beat us up about what we’re not doing. I can’t be a vegetarian. I’ve tried in a disciplined, conscientious, educated way twice for almost two years each and both times my health slipped several serious notches. No surprise, probably, since all my heritage is British Isles and Northern European. I also can’t use CFLs. We switched out all our bulbs ($1000 worth!), and over five months I got terribly sick. I’m one of the approximately 14% of the population who’s terribly mercury reactive. Fifteen years ago I was mercury poisoned by new dental work and lost 23#, half my hair, most normal functioning and had central nervous system damage that persists today. This time the mercury wasn’t located inside my body and constituted a much less significant exposure; nevertheless CFLs contain methyl mercury as a starter and can be contaminated on the outside during manufacture, by breakage during shipping and possibly by the fact that the bulbs’ glass absorbs the mercury gas inside; though it’s a very small amount in each bulb it’s enough to make some of us very sick. (An aside, but an important one: does everyone out there know CFLs must be recycled as hazardous waste and there’s a protocol for disposing of broken bulbs that includes ventilating the area, not handling the debris except with disposable rubber gloves, cleaning up with disposable implements like wet paper towel and duck tape, and recycling all at a haz waste station? And never, ever vacuum CFL debris; that will broadcast the mercury widely.) Now I’m being treated medically and recovering from the severe symptoms and CFLs are out for me. So someone else will have to be the veg and CFL user while I do the things I can like using drying racks, using my own cloth shopping bags, growing some of our food and eating ‘locally’ as much as possible, unplugging my phantom loads when appliances and electronics aren’t in use, turning my thermostat down, carpooling, TerraPass-ing, of course, and buying a SunFrost fridge, made in Arcata, CA, to replace our garage fridge. It was developed for solar homes and has been re-engineered for those of us still on the grid. It uses a third as much energy as a comparable Energy Star rated ‘fridge and an eighth as much as the old one it’s replaced! I often sign off a short weekly column about global warming I write for a local paper with, “We’re all in this together.” We are and together we can do it. What it’ll take across the board is conscientiousness and integrity, but let’s throw in consideration for our own and other’s individual situations and limitations while we’re at it.

  26. Jamie - March 14, 2007

    Terra Pass is doing a great job! Not only does Terra Pass give the average person an opportunity to do something concrete about global warming, they encourage people to take responsibility for themselves and think about how their own actions affect the larger system, quantitatively. AND, perhaps just as important, they are helping to build community, a sense that we are not alone. We have a little revolution starting, and Terra Pass deserves a lot of credit. To the professional “activists” pushing the “papal indulgence” rap, get over yourselves- not everything is a scam.

  27. Erin - March 15, 2007

    I think the basic truth is this: someone who does not care about the environment would not seek out carbon offsets. The idea that someone would use carbon offsets to justify their lifestyle misses the point: someone who does not have a guilty conscience about their environment-ruining lifestyle would not care about offsetting it!

    Personally, I purchased my Terra Pass not because I don’t want to do other things to help, but because I literally am unable to. I work for the Foreign Service and the countries I live in do not provide recycling or compact flourescent bulbs etc. Often I can’t even adjust the amount of heating or air conditioning I get in my living quarters, and forget about things like insulating a water heater or buying energy-efficient appliances or windows. Aside from personally reducing my consumption, there is almost nothing else I have control over; carbon offsets therefore make it possible for me to sleep at night. They are not an excuse for my bad behavior; rather, they are my only option for doing some good.

  28. Ross - March 15, 2007

    Last Christmas, I bought TP for two friends that have long commutes and a third for my father who often flies for work. Not because I feel “guilty” that my family and friends (like most all Americans) produce GHGs, but because I want to help them offset those emissions to the extent possible. Next year, hopefully they’ll buy offsets for themselves, internalizing the cost of CO2 generation that most people blithely, irresponsibly externalize to society at large.

    The alternative, I suppose, would be to act the stereotypical environmentalist, seeking to convince my friends and family to renounce their evil, modern ways that require travel. But it’s hard to see that as generating less backlash.

    If anything, those of us who buy offsets do it because we realize that it’s the only way to currently approach zero emissions. As Drew mentioned above, a hybrid driver who doesn’t also have offsets is still a long way from being carbon neutral.

  29. Connie - March 15, 2007

    Yes, I bought a terra pass for my Honda Pilot that has another 2 yrs on the lease. Honda Pilot had the best efficiency in it’s size and price and I bought a 2 wheel drive. I am praying that at the end of the lease, I can buy a hybrid or better. The pass made me feel better admittedly. But I like to focus on the solution, not the problem. Maybe if New York times and others did the same…. I also put a stop to all our catalogs, put in CFL’s in all our fixtures and started composting. Just a start but I’m building momentum! Thank you to all at Terra Pass. I tell all our friends about you and put the sticker on my car proudly.

  30. Robert Ogner - March 15, 2007

    Buying offsets are more likely to empower people to
    make reductions in carbon emissions. Most people
    feel helpless in relation to how much they, themselves,
    can slow climate change by the small amount of difference that
    their own reductions will make. The purchase of offsets is like
    a tax we give ourselves when our collective voice (government)
    has not yet enforced that tax. That purchase of offsets motivates
    political action so that the tax bill is more shared. That purchase
    of offsets counteracts the helpless experience and causes people
    to take more productive collaboratiive action, such as, say,
    hosting a Global Warming Cafe with their neighbors to get
    everyone on the block to work toward the shared goal
    of reducing emissions.

  31. Aaron A. - March 15, 2007

    This is a bit of a tangent, but I was thinking about what Anonymous (#18) said:
    offset is really an easy “feel good”, like buying organic food that is trucked over thousands of miles to get to your national food chain.

    We’ve beaten the “feel good” angle to death, so I won’t get into that here.

    What sort of research has been done regarding the pollutant effect of America’s mass food production system? Specifically, I was wondering if it’s really any better (from an emissions standpoint only*) to burn three gallons of gas going to a “pick your own veggies” farm, as opposed to having big trucks hauling hundreds of peoples’ food to a central location. This, of course, assumes that I don’t have enough space to grow anything bigger than cilantro.

    — A.
    * Yes, there are other reasons to eschew mass-produced food, but that’s another website.

  32. Adam Stein - March 15, 2007

    Aaron, Omnivore’s Dilemma is a great book that touches on a lot of these issues (although it’s not primarily about carbon emissions). The average meal travels 1,500 miles from farm to plate, and in fact the American food production system is awash in fossil fuel.
    That said, driving your own car to a farm is probably not the way to go, because you end up wrapping your bushel of apples in a few tons of steel to get it home. The happy medium is a market that sells locally produced food. Alas, this isn’t always an easy thing to find — particularly in Alaska.

  33. Aaron A. - March 15, 2007

    Thanks for the book tip, Adam! I’ll be sure to check it out.

    Adam said:
    The happy medium [between “mass-produced food shipped by smog-belching trucks” and “driving 40 miles each way to pick your own vegetables”] is a market that sells locally produced food. Alas, this isn’t always an easy thing to find — particularly in Alaska.

    Actually, pretty much any place I’ve been, there’s a farmer’s market at least part of the year. It just takes a little digging. Sadly, mine always seems to be fresh out of 1,000 pound pumpkins.

  34. adam - March 16, 2007

    I think the general idea of carbon offsetting is good in the sense of funding “greening” projects worldwide. I think this practice will help drive social awareness to reduce both the individual and businesses carbon footprints.

  35. Adam - March 16, 2007

    Obviously we all seem to agree here because nearly all of us own Terrapasses. Has anyone made a bad decision in terms of CO2 emissions and then justified it by saying you owned a Terrapass? Anything at all?

    Left the car idling when you ran in to pick up a sandwich?
    Left the lights on while you were at work?
    Left the refrigerator open while eating?

    I’d be curious to hear if any Terrapass owners do anything like this, particularly if they didn’t do things like this before buying a Terrapass. If so, please speak up.

    Ed. note — this comment is not from the Adam(s) who work at TerraPass. Just fyi.

  36. D Stevens - March 17, 2007

    The Tufts University Climate Iniatiative gives 6 questions to ask of the offset company so you can make sure your maoney goes where you want it to go. This industry is not regulated. 1) Does the company and you terra Pass adhere to the World Wildlife’s Fund’s Gold Standard, the strictest possible offset criteria? 2)Does the company use an independent auditor? 3) Does the offset truly reduce emissions and at the same time benefit the local population and ecosystems? 4)How much of the offser purchase will go directly to the project and how much will be sent on transaction costs, bookeeping, advertising and staff salaries? 5) What specific additional environmental benefit will the company achieve with your money? 6) Does the company work transparently? Does it list its projects in detail on its website?
    TerraPass will you please answer these questions? Thank You, D Stevens

  37. Adam Stein - March 18, 2007

    Hi D,
    I’ll answer these questions and also provide a little bit of context. Some of these questions are well-intentioned but a little off the mark.
    1) The Gold Standard is a new standard for offsets, and it has not yet seen much adoption from project developers. Offset retailers couldn’t sell Gold Standard-compliant offsets even if they wanted to, because for the most part they don’t yet exist. Hopefully this situation will change.
    2) Yes, TerraPass uses an independent auditor. In fact, we were the first to do so, and are the only retailer to publish a verification report. It’s also important to note who the auditor is — our is the Center for Resource Solutions, a nonprofit with years of expertise in renewable energy and carbon accounting.
    3) Yes, all of our offsets truly reduce emissions and have secondary benefits.
    4) No one in the industry makes this information public. The Tufts report is a bit confused on this point.
    5) The primary environmental benefit, of course, is carbon reductions. Replacing energy from coal with wind energy also has a host of ancillary emissions-reduction benefits (sulfur, mercury, etc.). These projects also benefit local communities economically.
    6) Yes, we are completely transparent. Unlike most in this industry, we list every single transaction, including the date and amount:

  38. Henry Halff - March 20, 2007

    Two interesting questions.
    1. I have to make a run to the market. Maybe I’m decrepit, or just plain lazy, so I decide to take my car. But, just as I am heading out of the drive, I see the neighbor kid on his bike. I say to the kid, “Hey, I’ll give you five bucks to make a carbon-neutral trip to the market for me.” Have I bought an indulgence and avoided personal responsibility.
    2. I have to make a run to the market. Maybe I’m decrepit, or just plain lazy, so I decide to take my car, and I do. The next day, I run into my neighbor in his drive. He’s just about to make a run to the market. I say to the kid. Hey, I’ll pay you five bucks to make a carbon-neutral run to the market.” Have I bought an indulgence and avoided personal responsibility?

  39. Drew - April 6, 2007

    Re: Adam post #34. My answers to your questions are that I have done all three at one time or another, but not because I have Terrapasses.

    More information for everyone could help because some things are not as simple as they seem and good intentions could actually rack up more energy used. Here are some things that I recall from my days working at WRI. With energy efficiency they may have changed and I welcome updates if anyone has them:

    1)Leaving your car idling while getting the sandwich- My understanding is that it takes as much fuel to start your car as it does to leave it idling for 2-3 minutes. If you pull up to the convenience store, run in to get something and back out, you may actually save some emissions by leaving the car on. Yes, a very marginal amount, but every bit counts. If there is a good line, you break-even on emissions and save stress on your engine.

    2)Leaving lights on in the office. Incandescents- yes- turn them off always and replace them as they burn out. HOWEVER- my understanding is that a common fluorescent tube light fixtures require as much energy to turn on and power up as it does to light for 2 hours. Therefore, one may actually be using more energy by turning the lights off when leaving a room if someone else will need light in that room in less than two hours.

    3)The fridge- Okay you got me. I can still hear my mother yelling at me to close the refrigerator door and not to open it until I know what I want to take out. I have always done that and still catch myself. At least my Energy Star Maytag sips electricity as opposed to the older clunkers.

    Again, I heard these estimates nearly 10 years ago and I hope things have gotten better. If anyone has other information I welcome it.

  40. Jo - May 2, 2007

    The claim that people who buy offsets are less likely to take emissions-reduction steps rather than more is so often claimed by these offset-cynics, but anecdotally in my own life the opposite is true; the cost of a Flight TerraPass moved me to avoid flying, and also to avoid foods that had to come to the supermarket by air; my boyfriend bought a car TerraPass and a few months later discovered he could take the metro to work, a commute that had gone unquestioned for four years before that. So Adam and Tom, I think the time has come for some independent research group to just do a study of offset customers with a control group … say, expedia customers who bought a TerraPass and expedia customers who didn’t. Ask them one month, three months, and six months later about their general awareness of global warming, if they think about ways to reduce their own emissions, if there are any steps they’ve taken over the past month to reduce those emissions. For a really super scientific approach, you’d asked folks as expedia customers without letting on that you knew they’d purchased a terrapass (or not), so that there’s nothing suggestive.
    But then, next time NYT or others get quotes saying, “buying offsets make people less likely to make reductions, or make them feel comfortable about not reducing,” the offset defenders could cite a study that *proves* that offset customers are not any less likely to make other reductions in their lives after purchasing an offset, in fact offset purchaser are more likely to make those changes in the months following an offset purchase than similar people who did not purchase an offset.
    I think the time has come to just examine this claim scientifically because it seems not to be going away by itself.