Carbon Offsets

Robert Frank was a busy man today. He wrote this post for, defending the notion of carbon offsets, and penned this column for the NY Times, doing the same. The idea behind carbon offsets is that, rather than reducing your own carbon emissions, you pay someone else to effectively cancel out those emissions by planting a tree or destroying something else that emits a lot of CO2.

Here’s a pull-quote that I think sums up his argument pretty well (via 538):

Suppose you live in a northern city with normally mild summers and are considering buying a bedroom air conditioner to ease you through the occasional brutal heat wave. Your choices are between a highly efficient model that sells for $500 and a less efficient one that sells for only $300. Because you’re concerned about global warming, you feel obligated to buy the more efficient model. But because you use your air-conditioner so infrequently, buying that model won’t actually help much. You’d do much more to curb global warming if you bought the cheaper model and used the money you saved to buy carbon offsets.

Make sense? Sure it does. But offsets aren’t without their critics, especially among environmental groups. The argument against it is a primarily moralistic one — allowing people to buy carbon offsets instead of improving their own behavior is (1) morally shady and (2) doesn’t address the root of the problem, people emitting carbon.

Frank links, in both articles, to, which compares buying carbon offsets to paying other people not to cheat on their wives to offset all the nasty extramarital jollies you keep pursuing. This complaint makes particular sense with reference to Al Gore’s buying carbon offsets to compensate for his 221,000 kWh mansion. Carbon offsets shouldn’t be a license for rich people — especially idealisitic ones — to pollute.

Frank’s rebuttal to this is that the two scenarios are not equivalent. You can’t “offset” the evil your cheating causes your wife by paying others not to cheat because other people not cheating on their wives has no effect on you or your loved ones. carbon emissions, however, are essentially a zero-sum game; if someone in Egypt reduces their carbon emissions, it’s the exact same as if you lowered yours in Utah. Try telling your wife, “it’s OK, Hosni Mubarak’s not sleeping around anymore.”

But I think even this argument, although spot on, misses the broader point. Carbon offsets are not designed to be a replacement for emission-reducing behaviors. What they can do, and do well, is tackle some of the cost-prohibitiveness of emission reduction. If anything, it’s poorer people who want to be green that would benefit the most from carbon offsets. Most of us can’t afford a hybrid, whether we love Mother Nature or not, but might be willing to buy a much cheaper, but equivalent carbon offset at the dealership when we settle on our standard-model Ford Fusion.

It’s the same driving principle behind cap-and-trade. It’s simply not economically feasible for everyone to become energy efficient overnight, so there needs to be some Plan Bs out there when “not polluting” just isn’t going to happen.


2 Responses to “Carbon Offsets”

  1. 1 climatesight May 31, 2009 at 8:40 pm

    It gives me a lot of hope when I see people debating solutions to climate change, and which actions will be the most effective, instead of whether or not the problem even exists.

    Have you seen my blog? It has to do with how climate change relates to ideas such as credibility, responsible journalism, and risk management. I think you might enjoy it.

    You can probably just click on my name and it’ll take you there.


    • 2 Brian Eason May 31, 2009 at 8:58 pm

      Yeah, I think at least among the journalism community it’s become more of a question of “what do we do about it?” as opposed to a “is it real?”

      I hadn’t seen your blog, but it sounds right up my alley. 🙂 I’ll definitely check it out.

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About the Author

Brian Eason is a University of Missouri graduate with bachelor degrees in Journalism and Political Science. He has covered Congressional elections and local government for the Columbia Missourian and worked as a general assignment reporter for the State Journal-Register in Springfield, IL. Brian has also had articles published in Roll Call.

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