New York Times takes (another) skeptical look at offsets

Not too much new here, but the New York Times has again dug into the issue of whether there’s less than meets the eye with carbon offsets. The issues it raises break down into the usual two categories:

  1. Some carbon offsets are ineffectual.
  2. Critics say that carbon offsets are a way for the self-indulgent to continue polluting without making any changes to their habits.

The first point is certainly true, and no one is less happy about it than we are. We would far prefer that all offsetting projects have impeccable quality, because the entire industry tends to get painted with broad brush strokes. Even though we don’t fund tree-planting projects, horror stories about dead mangroves and land ownership disputes don’t help the cause.

All we can really do us continue pushing for industry-wide quality standards and investing as much as possible in consumer education. This is a long-term project, and articles such as the one in the Times are constructive if they make people dig a little deeper before making a purchase.

The second point is true in a technical sense: critics certainly do say that offsets foster complacency.

And critics are given ammunition by such ill-conceived programs as a marketing campaign linking carbon offsets to the purchase of a Land Rover sports utility vehicle. We do agree that carbon offset vendors have an obligation to market responsibly.

But still, there’s an underlying empirical question here: do offsets encourage fossil fuel use?

Anecdotally, everything in our experience suggests that the answer is no. People who purchase offsets are highly engaged on the issue of climate change. They actively seek additional ways to minimize their footprint. We may not have a definitive answer to the question, but our experience is at least suggestive.

Why, then, is this criticism so persistent? I have a theory that the criticism mistakenly links to unrelated facts. The first fact is that society as a whole is not taking climate change seriously enough, either at the level of government or individuals. Simply put, we are not in aggregate making choices that reflect the seriousness of the issue.

The second fact is that a small but growing portion of the population has started voluntarily purchasing carbon offsets to help mitigate their greenhouse gas emissions.

Taken together, you can sort of see the chain of inference here. We as a society are still buying fleets of SUVs and heating our pools to 85°. We’re also starting to buy carbon offsets. It’s not really surprising that some environmentalists are feeling the urge to jump up and down and shout, “Hey, society, you’re missing the point!”

But the frustration seems misdirected. Offsets aren’t the problem, and anyway, the people buying them for the most part aren’t the ones leaving their plasma TVs on all day. The problem is a general lack of awareness, understanding, and concern. And as far as we can tell, carbon offsets help to address that problem, not contribute to it (although I also think that this would be a really interesting question to attempt to answer with harder data).

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adam

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  1. Anonymous - February 20, 2007

    Offsets work when additional. They dont work when they are from wind farms in Texas or Washington state. The offsets go toward the financing of projects that wouldnt have been built. When this is strictly followed the offsets will make a difference. The free market with cap and trade schemes worked with SOx and NOx and they will work with carbon. If not, we can join the Piguo Club, tax carbon and really stick it to the lower & middle class to pay for change. So me thinks….

  2. theo - February 20, 2007

    The criticism is so persistent because everyone likes to rail against perceived hypocrisy — it’s easier than engaging the merits of a policy. (The Times article tries to address the merits, in EXTREMELY ANECDOTAL fashion.)

    Environmentalists and leftists are somewhat guilty of obsessing over hypocrisy, which provides some of the drumbeat behind the NYT articles.

    But I guarantee that coverage of carbon “indulgences” will get worse if/when Al Gore runs for President, because no-one likes to trump up pseudo-stories about liberal hypocrisy like oil industry-funded libertarian shills and the smear merchants of Fox News.

    Terrapass, get ready to roll out your response campaign.

  3. Tom Chandler - February 20, 2007

    It’s discouraging to see the Times do a hatchet job like that. Basing criticism on a few anecdotal stories doesn’t do them credit.
    There’s an implicit strawman in those arguments; few would argue that carbon offsets are the answer to global warming, and it’s laughable to suggest that the people buying them are interested in returning to a hyper-consumptive lifestyle.
    Why didn’t the Times interview someone who thinks of carbon offsets as providing an opportunity to participate in an energy “free market” that’s denied us due to the organization of the power grid.
    In other words, I can’t go to my light switch and know only sustainably produced electrons are flowing through it, but I can make that choice on a virtual level.
    At the very least, carbon offsets could be viewed as the early rumblings of an class of energy/environmentally aware consumers who don’t have any free market choices (yet).

  4. Julie - February 21, 2007

    In my case, I have a Honda pilot that I purchased in 03, before I was willing to face up to Global Warming. It’s fully paid off and I can’t afford to buy a new car now. So I bought a Terrapass. When I can get a new car, it will be a hybrid. In the meantime, I am trying to offset my emissions. That’s a great use of the terrapass.

  5. Zoey - February 21, 2007

    I agree with Julie. I can’t afford to buy a hybrid right now either, and i don’t live where there is public transportation. So am glad I am able to help mitigate some of the damage that I am doing. When I get my next paycheck I am going to try to terrapass some of my home as well. I am not in a situation where I can change my life to being carbon-less but I am glad that opportunities are there, for those of us who are really concerned to at least balance out for some of what we are creating.

  6. Paul - February 21, 2007

    No matter what I do to try to offset carbon emmisions–ride a bike to work, hang my clothes to dry outside, buy a terrapass–I’m still accused of hypocrisy for driving a car or using the appliances in my house from those who do absolutely nothing different in light of evidence that we are all responsible for warming the earth. I don’t aim to be a purist–nor should the people at Terrapass, but it’s important to try to do something and take the issue seriously rather than throw up your hands and ignore the needs of the generations of live beings that will follow us in the future.

  7. Heather - February 21, 2007

    I agree that the people purchasing the offsets are more climate conscious in general. The ones that keep buying the big SUV’s didn’t care enough in the first place. I gave up my Land Rover for an Audi wagon. Before buying I checked the EPA green vehicle guide for my best alternative to the big SUV. Now I get better MPG and lower emissions. No, it isn’t as great as some of the hybrids, but for my needs it is what I could do, I bought the Terrapass to go a step further.

  8. Matt Holbert - February 21, 2007

    I’m interested in knowing what percentage of offsets purchased is used to pay overhead, staff and investors in offset entities such as terrapass. This would be a critical bit of information before I would take the leap. Does anyone know where I can find this type of information? Zoey and Julie– I read recently that due to the energy involved in the manufacture and disposal of hybrids, they are as energy intensive as suvs. Maybe it makes sense to keep the Pilot.

  9. Anonymous - February 21, 2007

    matt brings up a good point about what happens to revenues from offset sales. What percentage of revenue is for operating expenses? what happens to the rest? there may not be a single source with all the answers because private companies are under no obligation to share that info but you can do your homework and get some answers. Ask the offset provider where your money goes. do they invest in renewable energy projects? (many of these offset providers do)…..but how much is the investment? in the NJ clean power choice program I found a green power supplier, that also provides carbon offsets…and they actually develop there own renewable energy projects…mostly wind farms i think. http://www.newwindenergy.com

  10. Morgaine - February 21, 2007

    Matt,
    For a thorough debunking to the idea that hybrids are as energy intensive as SUV’s please see the following link,
    As the author states ,that notion “is the result of a FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) study by CNW research shilling for big oil.”
    This is a must read:
    http://www.blacksunjournal.com/energy-transition/149_junk-research-swift-boats-hybrid-cars_2006.html

  11. Bob Stebbins - February 21, 2007

    That buying carbon offsets amounts to “indulgences” is way too cynical about human nature. Many who buy them will take other steps to reduce their carbon emmisions. Labeling others as hypocrits does not further our cause, but labels one as being sanctimonius. Better to set a good exmple and encourage others to change.

  12. Keith Peters - February 21, 2007

    I, too, read the NY Times piece with a critical eye. You see, I have pledged to become carbon neutral this year and I publish a blog to chronicle my experiences and learnings, in hopes of inspiring others to take the first steps toward significantly reducing their carbon footprint.
    One of the things that bums me out is all the skepticism around carbon offsets. In fact, I ranted about that just last week in my blog. Much to my chagrin, just after I’d read the NY Times piece this morning, I stumbled upon a story in The Australian about Easy Being Green (an offset vendor) and their offer to offset the methane in your cat’s farts!
    At first, I thought I’d pulled a Rip Van Winkle and gone to sleep for a month. But, I quickly realized that what I’d hoped was an April Fool’s joke was real–and really damaging to the credibility of carbon offsets.
    In addition to the skeptical points of view Adam references above, now there’s ammunition for another group of skeptics: those who don’t/can’t take the threat of global warming seriously because some carbon offset company will offset the methane in your cat’s farts for a mere $8/year!
    To top it all off, Easy Being Green looks to be a legitimate player in the carbon offset world. It’s chief executive, Paul Gilding, is a former head of Greenpeace International. With all his campaign experience, you would think he would know better than to make a joke when so many folks are already skeptical of climate change and the potential of one of its highest profile remedies.
    Serious problems call for serious actions, not levity.

  13. Byron - February 21, 2007

    I’m with Adam. The slant on the article as a whole is not suprising. For me, the end of the article was nice because it educated me on the different views between Larry Page and Sergey Brin over carbon offseting their flights.

    Sergey offsets his air travel. But, Larry said, “I think I would pursue something more specialized and personal” rather than relying on offsets, which, at the time, “was the most expedient thing I could do.”

    Since I read that I’ve been trying to think of all the things I could do that were “specialized and personal” than relying on an offset. To offset 1 year of jet fuel emissions used to cart either one of them around would be a lot of nights without ESPN.

  14. Cynthia - February 22, 2007

    I’ve enjoyed reading the comments and think Theo has found the heart of the problem. Journalists love exposing perceived “hypocrisy” in a “do-good” movmement. A perceived hyprocrisy gives everyone who’s doing nothing a “pass,” so to speak: ‘See even if I wanted to do something, I couldn’t do it withou the dirty shadow of hyprocrisy.’
    Like ethanol/biodiesel, carbon offsets are just a step toward reversing climate change and toward zero emissions. And I think anyone who spends the money and energ using offsets is aware of this.
    Yes, Theo, the articles will be awful around Gore should he choose to run, and I dread thinking about how much “waste” will be “exposed,” for instance, with the upcoming global climate concerts.
    Better that NYT, and any other publication worth (or not worth) the sacrificed forest it’s printed on, focuses its journalistic efforts on how a company like ExxonMobil, which makes over four million in profit a day, has profoundly and darkly influenced energy policy and American politics here, and abroad.

  15. Anonymous - February 22, 2007

    I agree that there is something oddly psychological about such poor articles about offsets like the recent NYT piece. Perhaps it is guilt, rather than perversity. If the carbon offset providers are correct, and a family of four can offset their automobile, airplane, and home energy use for something like $1000-$2000 per year, then that is something within the reach of many milliions of households. What does it then say about me (the journalist?) if that is true, and I’m not doing it.

  16. Adam Stein - February 22, 2007

    I wasn’t actually feeling nearly as critical of the article as a lot of other people seem to, but I did want to follow up on Byron’s point. When I originally wrote the post, I included some snark about the article’s liberal use the journalistic weasel word “some.” Some is a useful word in articles, because it refers to any number between 1 and 1 trillion, and is therefore extremely handy when building a story around anecdotes. Of course, “some” is a legitimate word, so it’s not like journalists aren’t allowed to use it. But if you see it pop up to often, it’s at least a little flag that perhaps you should take the claims with a grain of salt.
    Anyway, I dropped the point because it seemed to media insider critique-y, but the Larry and Sergey anecdote really did give me a good chuckle. The article states matter-of-factly that “some consumers are thinking twice about whether to use offsets.” Then “some consumers” turn out to be none other than the billionaire founders of Google, vacationing in Davos, who have used offsets to balance emissions from their personal 767. What a useful sample!
    Anyway, when Larry says that he wants to something “specialized and personal,” he means that he’s interested in building his own wind farm, or funding R&D for an electric car. These are noble endeavors, to be sure, but somewhat out of reach for most of us.

  17. Matt Holbert - February 22, 2007

    Morgaine- Thanks for the link on the SUV/Hybrid energy issue.
    It seems to me that due to human nature and the complexity of this issue, we will end up with the “solution” that George Monbiot proposes in Heat (available in May in the States). Rationing. If we start to see energy use dropping, there might be hope. However, I think that all the schemes proposed so far will only affect usage on the margins. The bottom line is that the general public will use every bit of energy that is around — regardless of price. Our lifestyle is truly not negotiable.

  18. Aaron A. - February 22, 2007

    People hate hearing “I told you so.” With the recent success of An Inconvenient Truth, and the clear scientific opinion coming from the IPCC, that’s basically what the denialists have to face. We’ve been “telling them so” for years, and now they have to either accept it or find a new way of downplaying the threat.

    So what do they do? They attack the messenger. Coldplay cares about the climate? Well, if they’re so concerned about the environment, why don’t they take it to a ridiculous extreme? They can go live in a treehouse, build a bike out of coconuts, and ride that to all their solar-powered concerts. Anything less would be hypocritical.

    This is nothing new. When Tom Cruise (in his sane days) spoke out about the environment, Rush Limbaugh raved about the hypocrisy of all the cars destroyed during the filming of Days of Thunder. When Truth premiered, the media attacked Gore for driving or flying around the country to promote the film. Never mind that the film clearly has done more good than the harm caused by a few cross-country flights, or that Gore probably would have offset the flights. He’s a hypocrite, and as such, nothing he says could possibly be true.

    More than anything, TerraPass should set a good example. Keep encouraging real-world conservation measures, document the value and additionality of your offsets, and occasionally remind the media that an entire group cannot be defined by those on the fringe.

  19. Aaron A. - February 22, 2007

    Anonymous said:
    If the carbon offset providers are correct, and a family of four can offset their automobile, airplane, and home energy use for something like $1000-$2000 per year, then that is something within the reach of many milliions of households.

    I did some number crunching (I’m an accountant; it’s what I do), and if the U.S. is responsible for 23.66 tons of CO2 per capita (Source: UNFCCC), and if a TerraPass costs $9 per ton (rough average of Road, Flight, and Home passes, rounded up for the sake of conservatism), then an average family of four could completely offset their footprint for $23.66 * 9 * 4 = $851.76 per year.

    Of course, the problem with this is reasoning is twofold: First, it doesn’t address the root of the problem, which is that we Americans are very wasteful people. Second, the costs of offsetting each additional ton of carbon increases, as it becomes harder to find new projects to facilitate for the quoted price.

    Ultimately, it’s consumer demand and technological progress that will make cars and homes and airplanes cleaner. Offsets aren’t the solution by themselves, but ultimately help to express that demand and fund that progress, either by subsidizing projects or by making emissions credits scarcer and more expensive.

  20. David - February 25, 2007

    To go back to your original post, Adam, I want to speak up on behalf of all of the “bad” Terrapass customers whose viewpoints on global warming did not play a major factor in the decision to purchase carbon offsets.
    My sole interest is in sparking investments in renewable energy sources, and moving society just a little farther along the economic supply and demand curve so that it will become even more affordable for those following behind. That’s what early adopters do.
    Will buying carbon offsets impact global warming? I have no idea. Maybe. Maybe not. Never even crossed my mind when clicking on the buy button.
    I narrowed down the list to several possible vendors, but what sold me was the vehicle carbon emissions sticker styled to look like the vehicle registration.
    Because the message couldn’t be clearer : being a responsible car owner means paying for insurance, paying for vehicle registration, regular maintenance, and buying carbon offsets to mitigate the pollution created while driving.
    Simple, effective, easy to learn, easy to teach.
    Doesn’t require a specific global warming belief system.

  21. Aaron A. - February 26, 2007

    I’m not sure I follow you, David. I don’t think anybody was trying to pigeonhole you into a certain global warming belief system. Closest I can find is:

    Adam: a small but growing portion of the population has started voluntarily purchasing carbon offsets to help mitigate their greenhouse gas emissions.

    And you said: being a responsible car owner means paying for insurance, paying for vehicle registration, regular maintenance, and buying carbon offsets to mitigate the pollution created while driving.

    Those don’t seem contradictory to me. You bought a TerraPass to fund safe renewable (which, by its nature, is generally clean) energy. That’s as good a reason as anybody else’s.

    Also, I think that part of what Adam’s been saying, in this thread and in others, is that journalists get too bogged down in individuals’ motivations for buying offsets. Do they do it because Al Gore’s brainwashed them all? Do they want to fund research for renewable energy?* Do they feel guilty about driving, and want somebody to say it’s okay to pollute?** That doesn’t really matter; the point is that ordinary people want to put their private funds into wind, solar, and cow power, and that a for-profit company can make that happen. I don’t own Google, so I can’t afford to start my own wind farm. By buying a TerraPass, though, I can fund .01% of a windmill in central Oklahoma. Regardless of my motivation, I’m paying to keep that windmill turning.

    – A.
    * That, incidentally, was one of the reasons I chose TerraPass over competitors. They don’t just buy credits on the CCX and retire them; they also directly fund specific projects.
    ** A close second motivation was that TerraPass specifically encourages reducing one’s output, rather than blindly offsetting.

  22. Aaron Baranoff - May 25, 2007

    According to one of the online carbon offset organizations my car uses the following…
    Vehicle: 2000 Subaru Legacy Wagon AWD automatic transmission
    Emissions: 9,586 lbs CO2 per year
    Therefore I should pay $50/yr to offset my car (actually they .say that amount will offset 12,000 lbs CO2 per year).
    They say my home is about 27171 lbs of CO2 per year and I should pay $140/yr (28,000 CO2 offset) to offset my home.
    The same site says that that each incandescent bulb you replace with a CFL saves 120 lbs of CO2 per year.
    Given that math to offset my home and car I need to offset 36757 lbs of CO2. This would be 307 CFLs so instead of spending $190 per year I could give away 307 CFLs to others. At $0.50 per bulb that I bought them for that is only $153.
    I have given away 40 of my 307 so far. My offset has the benefit of helping those around me and the environment faster. They save money and the environment benefits.
    Let me know what you think and check my math. My intention is not to say these groups are not doing well just that we can do better by starting in our own homes and helping those around us first.
    Aaron (http://baranoff.typepad.com/cheaper_electric/)

  23. Tom Arnold - May 25, 2007

    Aaron:
    What you are doing is awesome — we congratulate you for that. Giving away 300 or so CFLs every year just is hard work for a lot of people (unless you teach). Plus, to get it verified, you have to make sure people actually use these.
    But, again its not a case of either conserve or offset, but conserve and offset. And give aways bulbs. And talk to people about CFLs. And teach kids about energy, etc etc etc.
    We need all types of people to fight climate change and you are part of the solution.

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