So What's Wrong With Carbon Offsets As Indulgences?


Muskoka Sunset

As I prepare to move back to the City on Labour Day after a summer in my sinful second home, I am thinking about carbon offsets for my 2-1/2 hour drive. But offsets are out of fashion, considered akin to the purchase of indulgences from the medieval church- a few bucks for the forgiveness of our sins of consumption.

So what. As Ron Dembo wrote in TreeHugger, "Over time, the cost of carbon will rise and will be factored into all the products and services we consume, and this will begin to have greater impact on our behaviour as the price differential between our old habits and a new greener lifestyle increases." But it isn't yet, so perhaps my purchase of an offset is my own little voluntary carbon tax.

I am putting my money into local trees, via Muskoka Envirocredits.

Everything that the David Suzuki Foundation complains about regarding reforestation as offsets applies here in spades:

While trees can be long-lived, they inherently lack permanence. Large amounts of carbon stored in forests can quickly be released as a result of forest fires, logging or disease. For the carbon in a tree to be able to offset other emissions and help limit the impacts of climate change, it must remain locked up in that tree for at least a hundred years....

Trees take years to reach maturity, and during their early years as saplings, trees can only absorb a limited amount of carbon from the atmosphere, meaning that carbon offset projects usually do not deliver actual emission reductions in the atmosphere for many years, possibly decades, after the trees are planted....

And not even all of the money goes to reforestation; much goes to "sustainability initiatives" and "stewardship promotion. And they are doing this work anyways; it is run by a charity called the Muskoka Heritage Foundation and alliance of local non-profit organizations that have been working at this for twenty years, before the idea of offsets existed.

So does it really offset the CO2 produced by my drive home? Probably not. Does it reduce my CO2 output? Yes, because it acts as a carbon tax on my driving, increasing the cost and reducing the attractiveness of using my car. Is it doing good work? No question about that. Do I feel better? Absolutely.

Discounting offsets because they are "indulgences" misses the point that giving to causes that you believe in is a good thing, feeling a bit guilty about driving your car such a distance is a good thing, and taxing yourself for it, whether you give the money to the Salvation Army or to plant trees or a really effective David Suzuki approved offsetting company is going to be the next best thing to not driving at all.