Are Carbon Offsets Immoral?

CC_logo_small.jpgIn my previous role as Executive Director of LiveNeutral I regularly received emails from friends and colleagues sharing the website or videos developed by the “CheatNeutral” (http://cheatneutral.com/). They asked if I though it somehow damaged or diminished the objective of LiveNeutral which in part promotes the use of carbon offsets as a tool to help prevent catastrophic climate change. This pertains as much to the work of ClimateCHECK as it does to LiveNeutral and is an important concept to consider for those of us in or interested in the carbon markets industry.


For the record, I think “CheatNeutral” is actually rather amusing – I am a great fan of satire because when done well it promotes critical thinking. The problem with CheatNeutral is that it is received by most viewers as a declaration that like infidelity carbon pollution is a sin and that as with all sins, the sinner is personally responsible for his or her own actions and subsequent redemption. It’s not my intention in this post to examine the concept of sin in regards to religious dogma but rather to consider the question of morality that motivates the comparison made by CheatNeutral. This analogy, between sin and carbon pollution, is what is called in the discipline of logic, a category error. A category error occurs when an object is ascribed properties which it does not or cannot have. In this case, carbon pollution is not a sin while infidelity is commonly considered by most world ethical codes around the world to be a sin.
I am aware that in 2008 the Pope declared “pollution” a new sin but even under this moral prescription not all carbon emissions can be considered pollution. The issue with carbon dioxide – and other greenhouse gases – is an issue of concentration. How much carbon dioxide can the atmosphere bear before it becomes a pollutant? This is a scientific question, not a moral question. Moral questions exist in the absolute – “thou shalt not”, rather than “thou shall but only a little bit”. This is where the category error pronounces itself.
Beyond the case of this damning category error (pun intended) lays another, more difficult question. Those who find carbon offsets somehow repugnant ought to offer a more helpful alternative. It is simply not possible for the developed world to change its energy infrastructure over night or to overhaul individual lifestyles wholesale – and all of us in North America have a carbon footprint that outweighs what the global per capita average ought to be given the scientific community’s consensus of stabilizing global temperature (about 1 ton annual per person versus the approximately 20 ton per person annual average in the US). Furthermore, forcing the developing world to forgo the use of the industrial technologies that we used ourselves to increase personal wealth and comfort without suggesting other forms of doing the same is in and of itself morally questionable.
Given the timeframe we have to reduce global warming emissions and the scale of the change required, it’s going to take all reasonable means necessary to make the change. Carbon offsets, using appropriate quality control mechanisms – (ISO, WBCSD/WRI, VCS, etc), can help us reduce emissions now while paving the way for the change we need to see in the world by encouraging renewable energy, energy efficiency, reforestation, sustainable development, etc. A world where too much carbon dioxide has a price and sustainable behavior turns a profit is a world where revolutionary change on an industrial scale is not only possible, it is likely. That’s where carbon offsets come into play and while they won’t stop climate change alone, they are certainly more virtuous than the vice of pumping unknown quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere for free.