The idea of buying carbon offsets — compensating for your own global-warming emissions by paying somebody else to reduce theirs — has provoked a lot of inflammatory rhetoric over the past few years. The standard trope is that it’s like the old practice of buying indulgences from the Catholic Church: You get to commit environmental sin — driving your SUV or living in your McMansion — and still sit at the right hand of God. Offsets are a “get out of a jail free” card, or even, according to one overwrought writer in the Rocky Mountain News, a way of getting away with murder: You shoot somebody, then ease your guilt by holding a bandage on the wound until the ambulance arrives.
Well, OK, tweaking hypocrites can be great fun, and you feel so much better about yourself afterward. I’ve done it myself, mocking forestry offsets in a commentary on NPR. But here’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.
If it has never been clear to you what an offset is, you have plenty of company. Here’s a quick primer: The average American produces about 20 tons of global-warming emissions annually, mostly from burning fossil fuels. Markets now exist that allow you to offset each ton by paying somebody else to reduce their emissions by one ton. In countries that signed the Kyoto Protocol, some companies buy offsets to help meet compulsory emissions limits. The U.S. Congress is also considering such limits in this country, and a regional system affecting utilities goes into operation in 10 Northeastern states on January 1. But for individuals and most businesses, buying offsets is a voluntary choice made for do-good and feel-right reasons.
Offsets make sense because Read the rest of this entry »