Carbon Week: The Pros and Cons of Carbon Offsets

With the rise to prominence of global warming as a subject and recognized problem, ideas for solutions for solving the problem have been quick to follow; while buzzwords such as “cap and trade”, “carbon sequestration” and the like dominate government proposals, carbon offsets have generated the most buzz on the individual level. The idea is simple: by calculating your carbon footprint (a subject we covered here []), you can use that information to essentially “offset” that footprint by investing in any number of alternative energy or carbon sequestration projects (get a quick primer at Wikipedia’s carbon offset entry []. Your investment in that project then theoretically insures a net reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, usually either by an increase in absorption of greenhouse gases or creation of an equivalent amount of clean energy. To be clear: carbon offsets don’t prevent your emissions-creating behavior (flying, driving, heating your home, etc.) from creating emissions; they’re a way to either take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (like with extra carbon dioxide-absorbing trees planted) or insure that more emissions don’t enter the atmosphere in the future (as with clean energy investments). Generally speaking, more trees and more clean energy are both good things, but offsets have generated a good bit of controversy in the green community as well. To work this out, we’ll take a quick peek at the pros and cons of carbon offsets.

The pros: carbon offsets help reduce carbon dioxide emitted from the electrical grid by creating more energy from wind, solar, biogas and other clean, alternative forms, and no matter how you slice it, more of this is a good thing. More clean energy production means less dirty energy going into the grid; in the long run, that’s less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and a slow-down in the warming of the globe. Similarly, offset projects that plant trees help absorb the superfluous carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and more trees also help preserve biodiversity, reduce soil erosion and flooding and provide shade (reducing the need for air conditioning and such). As such, carbon offsets help reduce your carbon footprint while helping fund clean energy and other planet-friendly projects. Offsets are not perfect, but they are sure better than nothing, and definitely a step in the right direction.

The downside of offsets is an interesting study in green sociology and psychology, with a little fuzzy math and greenwashing thrown in for good measure. Detractors worry that offsets enable “dirty” behavior like excessive driving, airplane flying, etc., with the thought that “it’s okay if I continue to pollute; I’ll just offset my footprint later.” These concerns are further compounded by a lack of governmental oversight or standardization for the process; this allows just about anyone to begin a “carbon offset” program and makes some offset-offering non-profits and companies better than others without a clear, standardized guide to who does it well. One company might offer to offset a ton of CO2 for $8 and another for $12; what’s the difference, and, perhaps more importantly, where does your money go? It’s difficult to tell, in some cases, especially from a consumer level, because some non-profits and companies are better at marketing than others. The bottom line is this: global warming will not be solved by carbon offsets alone. It’s important to realize that they are not a magic solve-all: at best, offsets are a piece of the carbon-reducing lifestyle puzzle; at worst, they are a placebo, enabling pollution-creating behavior while not fully doing the job they are intended.

TreeHugger tries to balance the two sides: they can be helpful, but the best thing to do is be more efficient and not create the emissions in the first place. That said, nobody is perfect, and there comes a point where we all have to climb behind the wheel, hop on a plane, or buy carbon-intensive products (like fossil fuel-created energy to heat and light your house); when cutting back isn’t an option, carbon offsets can help you clean up any loose ends that reducing usage and increasing efficiency can’t cover.

This is really the tip of the carbon offset iceberg; there are myriad other opinions and ideas on the topic. TreeHugger’s editor sums up his thoughts here [], and though he isn’t speaking for TreeHugger as a whole, does a pretty thorough job of weighing the pros and cons. Green business guru and all-around green smart guy Joel Makower gives his take [] on offsets and a report that rates offset providers, and is an excellent next step in the process of understanding how offsets work. If you’ve got an hour or two to kill, click over to TreeHugger [] and type “carbon offsets” into the search field to dig deeper into the ins and outs of the topic. Tomorrow, we’ll dive into carbon-responsible products and services.