Carbon Offsets: Angels Or Devils?

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In George Monbiot’s book, Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning, he compares buying and selling carbon offsets to “pushing the food around on your plate to create the impression that you have eaten.” Responsible Travel might agree with Monbiot’s statement. Last month the company canceled its carbon offset program saying that it was not helping to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

“The carbon offset has become this magic pill, a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card,” said Justin Francis, the managing director of Responsible Travel. “It’s seductive to the consumer who says, ‘It’s $4 and I’m carbon-neutral, so I can fly all I want.'”Anja Kollmuss, staff scientist for the Stockholm Environment Institute said, “Buying offsets is a nice idea, just like giving money to a soup kitchen is a nice idea, but that doesn’t end world hunger. Buying offsets won’t solve the problem because flying around the way we do is simply unsustainable.”

“”It is inherently difficult to measure emission reductions under a carbon offset project,” said H. Sterling Burnett, a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis, in a March Washington Post commentary. He used planting new trees as an example. Estimating how many GHGs are absorbed by a forest “depends on the age of the trees, their growth rate, and climate and soil conditions.”

A 2007 study called carbon offsets “new indulgences.” Part of the problem with offsets, according to the study, is that they perpetuate a “business-as-usual scenario.” One of the main criticisms the study levels at offsets is that they allow people to keep taking part in activities that contribute to climate change by assuaging guilt.

It presents itself as a way that people can effectively deal with climate change while largely maintaining their levels of energy consumption. Instead of acknowledging the uncomfortable but necessary truth that we cannot responsibly persist with our current lifestyles, climate-conscious people are being encouraged to believe that with offset schemes they can continue as they were, as long as they pay money to absolve themselves of their responsibility to the climate.

The study quotes Kevin Anderson, a scientist with the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. “Offsetting is a dangerous delaying technique because it helps us avoid tackling the task [of dealing with climate change],” Anderson said. “It helps us sleep well at night when we shouldn’t sleep well at night. If we had gone to the limit of what we can do in our own lives then I could see it would be a route to go down, but we’ve not even started to make changes to our behavior.”

What do you think of carbon offsets?

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.