What Does the Catholic Church Have to do with Carbon Offsets?

The Catholic Church more or less invented offsets in the Middle Ages when it put a price tag on sin and sold forgiveness in the form of “indulgences.”  While the practice was condemned by many Christians and helped fuel the Protestant revolution, we find ourselves, once again, trying to buy our way out of our “sins” against the planet—this time in the form of carbon offsets.

Carbon offsets are financial instruments that monetize carbon emissions; they can be bought, sold, and traded.  While there is currently no national carbon cap in the US, many companies and organizations choose to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in order to sell offsets to the Chicago Climate Exchange–the only voluntary, legally binding, GHG reduction and trading market in North America.  Private citizens or organizations are then able to purchase those GHG offsets through third party brokers (such as LiveNeutral.org) in order compensate for their climate impact.

Just like I’d rather pay a fine than sit in a confessional apologizing to some strange man in black for my weekend adventures (although I think back in the good old days of indulgences, one had to both talk to and pay the priest), many people would rather buy carbon offsets than trade in their cushy SUVs.  The question is, do carbon offsets really make a difference?

Proponents believe that carbon offsets do, in fact, directly lead to atmospheric carbon sequestration, and argue that proving a robust market for carbon offsets will provide the necessary economic traction to usher in the era of cap and trade.  Cynics, if they’re smart, will just send you to the Cheat Neutral website.

The controversy surrounding carbon offsets comes down to two major issues:  proving additivity, and proving that promised offset projects are actually carried out.

Additivity means that a carbon offset represents a reduction in GHG’s that would not otherwise have existed.  Let’s use the example of carbon offsets that take the form of forest conservation.  Protecting existing forests prevents the carbon emissions that result from deforestation and provides an economic incentive to not chop it down, thereby addressing one of the biggest challenges in the conservation movement–monetizing conservation. But some say that protecting existing forests isn’t a real offset since no additional carbon was removed from the atmosphere.  Another example is voluntary reductions by companies that participate in the Chicago Climate Exchange.  Some people question how buying offsets makes a difference if companies have already agreed to reduce their emissions.

The second issue is the prevalence of fraud, and we can now return to our initial discussion of the connection between the Catholic Church and carbon offsets.  History is one patient practical joker that Buddhists call karma and many of us lay people know as a b$tch.  As it were, it appears that the Holy See got scammed by their own invention in 2007, whereby they paid KlimaFa–a company possibly more well known for its horrible idea of selling carbon offsets through ocean iron fertilization–to plant the “Vatican Forest” in an economically depressed town in Hungary in order to offset the Vatican’s carbon emissions.  But not a single tree was ever planted, not a single shred of eco-guilt sequestered.  Indeed, the Vatican purchased a carbon-indulgence that amounted to nothing more than a scam.  Doh!

Whereas the sale of indulgences was indisputably nothing more than a pocket-lining ploy, carbon offsets do have some positives.  Carbon offsets are usually:

  • Better than nothing.
  • A good last resort.
  • A temporary solution.
  • A financial reward for major emitters that reduce GHG emissions.
  • A funding source for some projects that permanently sequester CO2.
  • A way to create and prove the carbon market in order to support cap and trade.

I know that many of my colleagues in the sustainability field will strongly disagree with me.  In fact, I am praying for hate mail that convinces me that carbon offsets are totally legitimate, because I so want to believe that purchasing them will make up for the fact that my partner drives an SUV.  But alas, I think I’m just stuck with the (Catholic) guilt.

Carly has a BA from Stanford and recently finished her MBA in sustainable management at Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. Her interests revolve around sustainable food production, sports, renewable energy, finance, and sustainable business consulting. She lives in Oakland where she spends her spare time cycling, home brewing, gardening, cooking, and surfing (when she can make it over the bridge).