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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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