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Carbon Offsets: Angels Or Devils?

Gina-Marie Cheeseman
| Tuesday November 24th, 2009 | 5 Comments

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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?


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  • FR

    I’ve always wondered how all the “green gurus” on the speaker circuit are handling their frequent air travel. Would be good to hear directly from some of them here…

  • KyNam do

    The pushing of food around on a plate addresses the impracticality of setting carbon caps across the board. Business operations are not created equal–some are more carbon dependent than others. A market cap and trade program, in my opinion, is a good solution. The overall levels of greenhouse emissions is capped while allowing for flexibility between different operations.

    Another great benefit to this cap-and-trade system is allowing the market to set the prices of these emission permits. Otherwise they would be arbitrarily set by policy.

  • KyNam do

    Granted, there are issues with cap-and-trade, but I feel like it’s on the right track

    • KyNam do

      And I haven’t read this book, which I will try to soon. I’ve been outside of this discussion for long enough that I need a refresher! Is there a way to edit old comments?

  • Rob

    I used to think offsets were a viable concept. Now, I think not for two reasons.
    One, verification is so expensive that it pushes us towards concentrated power when we should be focusing on distributed power. Distributed power would deploy faster and really, who should own power generation, an essential component of society? We should of course as evidenced by the manipulation California has gone through.
    The second reason hits very close to home. Suppose one were to build and operate marine tourism vessels sustainably and offer a real alternative to cruise ships which will never be. The additional cost over a non sustainable trip might be $XXX.00 per week. But a piece of a “verified” tree planting project somewhere on the globe costs only $X.00. The tourist doesn’t see the difference, mostly because the cruise ship will claim sustainability also and make the case that the offset offsets.
    So the net effect is that sustainable businesses have to compete directly with externalizing businesses.
    Cap and trade? Maybe. But I tend to think that the way business has extended it’s competitive environment into government will further delay the change necessary. Maybe the courts can level the field.

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