The Guilty Language of Offsets

In NewScientist today, there is a little article that describes the different types of carbon offsets you can purchase. It's not too informative and I much prefer articles with a little more of a critical eye, such as this 2007 piece in BusinessWeek or this piece from the NYTimes blog on confusing carbon labels. (By the way, be sure to check out the UK offset parody Cheat Neutral).

Truth is, I have been bored by carbon offsets for ages (ever since I did my master's related to carbon trading--back in 2002, when they were still calling it 'carbon sequestration' and the concept had not yet burgeoned into the fancier 'offset market' and the neocon eco-manifesto designed to fleece sensitive yuppies it is today; my then supervisor at Cornell, Duane Chapman, used to joke around about a "Logs in Space" program to sequester carbon). Stocking stuffer or not, carbon offsets just aren't that interesting.

What I do find fascinating is the guilty language associated with offsets, which was prominent in the NewScientist article. From the lede:

If you are serious about reducing your emissions, opt for a staycation rather than jetting off on an exotic holiday. But if you must fly or indulge in other carbon-intensive activities, carbon offsetters now promise redemption.

Redemption! And here is another guilt-laden title from the climatebiz blog: San Francisco Int'l Airport Letting Fliers Relieve Guilt with Carbon Offsets. Here is Offset away our guilt and here is Pearl Jam Offsets Their Tour: Rock out Guilt-Free or, a personal favorite from the Economist, Carbon offsets: Sins of emission, wherein offsets are compared to the sale of Catholic indulgences:

Just as Luther criticised indulgences, critics of offsetting argue that the ability to buy retrospective forgiveness for sins of emission is no substitute for not sinning in the first place.

What is it about offsets specifically that lends them to guilt-laden language? Is it that they can be so aptly compared to indulgences? Why, for instance, is that kind of language never used for drinking bottled water or having three or more children?

*Sept. 23 update: Apparently, for the climate change meeting this week in New York, the U.N. offset its carbon emissions "by directing money to a power project in rural Andhra Pradesh, India, through which agricultural leftovers like rice husks and sunflower stalks are turned into electricity for the local grid." Social responsibility or greenwashing? You decide.

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The curious thing is that the logic behind carbon offsets is at least somewhat sound (at least in a "don't do any more damage" diet Coke and Big Mac kind of way), but the way people think of them as a free pass to pollute strikes me as an invitation to offset inflation.

I find the idea of buying carbon offsets -- and selling them -- to be fundamentally dishonest, and I think I'm not alone.

I came to this view as part of a family that owns timberland. We were being inundated a few years ago with pleas to sell our "offsets".

While we may have more than our fair share of offsets, that does not give us permission to spend them by being wasteful, nor does that give others the right to buy them to make them "feel" better about their wastefulness.

It's being compared to indulgences because it is exactly like them. All it does is maintain the status quo... no reduction in the carbon footprint is required, just as no reduction in sin was required. The responsibility is merely being distributed in a more "equal" manner.

Well, I think if by purchasing an offset, something happened that otherwise would not happen, then there is some benefit, no? If a group of trees is already growing, then selling their 'offset' is clearly of no value, but if by purchasing an offset a group of trees is planted (or protected from being cut down) then there will be a real reduction in atmospheric carbon.

By mark nicolussi (not verified) on 23 Sep 2009 #permalink

I've always favored a straight tax on waste. This of course is not as attractive because no one really stands to profit from this (except the government, I suppose...).

Any updates or inside scoop on straight taxing waste? I've read a lot of great ideas and theory...have yet to see a tangible offering.

Carbon offsets=zero carbon reduction+money for environmental extortionists. Makes no sense but lots of cents. Only a fool would pay it and only a simpleton will believe it. Al Gore!

By Blane Burns (not verified) on 15 Oct 2009 #permalink