Forgive Me Earth For I Have Sinned, It's Been One Week Since My Last Carbon Offset

heathrow airport jets photo

photo: caribb

There's no getting around the fact that despite the best intentions of many of us in the green movement, we live and work in a society which spews out a lot of carbon emissions. It's part of the structure of our nations and no matter what we do on an individual level, it's unlikely that we really can reduce our carbon footprint below a certain level. All but the most eco-ascetic of us have a higher carbon footprint than is optimal. The easy answer to addressing that excess carbon is to offset it, using one of the myriad services available.

A new piece in Yale Environment 360 examines the knotted issue of carbon offsets. Are they really more than an environmental analog to the old practice in the Catholic Church of buying indulgences for sins? Read on:We All Contribute to Global Warming
Author Richard Conniff frames the issue well; after pointing out that it's easy to say that simply buying carbon offsets to make up for your "environmental sin" is simply avoiding the bigger issue, he goes on to say,'s the hitch: I'm contributing to global warming and so are you, by all the usual means — driving cars, flying planes, heating or cooling homes, and consuming electricity (to write and read this article, among many other things). We can ignore it and just bump up the hypocrisy quota a bit. But if we choose to do something about it, the solution will almost certainly include offsets.

Why Offsets Make Sense
Offsets make sense because they provide a market-based approach for finding and testing global-warming remedies. They provide pools of cash to reduce global-warming emissions in ways that wouldn't happen otherwise.

In Oregon, for instance, the Earth Advantage Institute, a nonprofit promoting green building methods, wants developers to spend $7,500 per house on a package of energy upgrades, such as putting in a better, more expensive grade of insulated window. The plan, says executive director Sean Penrith, is to reduce annual emissions by about a third, roughly two tons per house. Developers wouldn't normally be interested, since the investment might not translate directly into a higher sales price. But Penrith's plan is to sell a 15-year package of reductions into the offset market at perhaps $1,000 per house. By combining offset income with Oregon's existing incentives for high-performance houses, the developer could come out $6,500 ahead on the deal. "I can take Joe Blow Builder. He can't even spell 'green,'" says Penrith. "But if I can present a value proposition on why he should move to an upgraded HVAC system, he's going to get it."

Honest Carbon Offsets
After talking about some of the criteria necessary for carbon offsets to really be effective, and honest—transparency in regards to monitoring of projects, measurability of goals, etc—Conniff goes on to address something which he feels is an aspect of the carbon offset debate which has not received as much attention as it should: Personal behavioral change.
The other requirement for making offsets honest hasn't gotten as much attention so far, because it involves a change in the behavior of buyers: If we accept that global warming is a serious threat, then the use of offsets makes sense only within the context of a carbon cap. Not a national or regional cap, but a self-imposed cap on the individual or organization buying the offset.

Otherwise, the critics are right, and buying offsets is like buying indulgences, so we can continue to sin in peace. Or even sin a little more. Having a cap means knowing your carbon footprint for a baseline year — 2008 will do — and having a plan to shrink it by a set amount each year. [...] If you accept the premise that the U.S. must reduce its carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050, that means eliminating about 2 percent of your baseline footprint annually, hardly a radical goal.

You could achieve the entire reduction in a single year by stunt eco-living (like the family whose list of banned products included toilet paper), or alternatively, by dropping dead. But a more practical approach is to hit or exceed your targets each year, then use offsets for the balance of emissions that you cannot immediately avoid.

Assess Your Carbon, and Ecological, Footprint
Unsure where to begin in assessing you personal carbon footprint or, even better, your entire environmental footprint? TreeHugger has covered the issue a number of times (see the links below); and over at Planet Green you can check out a run-down of some of the more popular eco-footprint calculators.

What Do Readers Offset?
As a question for readers: How many of you buy carbon offsets? When you fly? For the fuel you burn in your car? If you haven't already switched to a green energy plan with your utility, for your home electric usage? Or do you think it's all one big game of pass the pollution?

via :: Yale Environment 360
Carbon Offsets
Carbon Neutral Myth? Protesters Take on Offset Companies
Carbon Offset Watch Ranks the Voluntary Carbon Market
Confused Which Carbon Offset Service to Use? EDF Lists Eleven They Trust
How Lightly Are You Treading on the Planet?

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