Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Carbon Offset

A disturbing trend is developing in the industrial world: that of the business of carbon offset. In theory, you pay a company a certain amount of money, who then invest it in areas where carbon is conserved (like wind farms, buying forest reserves, supporting solar panel technology). The amount you pay is calculated based on how much "carbon" you waste each year, taking into account the car you drive, your heating and air conditioning bill, and other environmental factors. This is a growing business, according to NPR, who highlighted it on their morning talk show.

However, this brings up several issues regarding our consumption in modern society. Perhaps investing in wind farms helps to offset our SUV driving, but does it really encourage saving and conservation, which should be at the head of any greenhouse gas emission solution? I don't think so. One of the people that Matrin Kaste interviewed for his report hit it right on the head: it is very much akin to the indulgences sold by the Church before the Reformation. The theory goes, "pay up for your sins, and you'll be guaranteed a clean slate."
It is easy to pay off $80 or so a year and drive your Ford Excursion like there was no tomorrow. But that is not the point of trying to be a better consumer and global citizen. While it might prompt some people to think about their "eco-footprint," it also has the danger of giving leeway to those who should be thinking about it the most. Being able to pay off your carbon debt, so to speak, could encourage you to be more carless about your consumption patterns, with the expectation that you can just pay it off later and be free and clear. That is dangerous thinking.

And the effect is small, very local. Kaste notes that it would take close to $10billion a year for the US to get to 1990 levels of carbon emissions. People are just not shelling out that amount of money, and there is also a limit to how many forests you can buy and protect, how many wind farms can be created in one year (or over a particular area). And it is one thing to invest in wind farms, but people or businesses also have to sign up to use the greener energy that the farms are producing. Buying into the farm is only half of the equation; without someone using it, it is a futile gesture.

While this is an ingenious way of approaching the problem, and this sort of outside-the-box thinking should be encouraged, it should not delude us from the real goal of this movement: to reduce our consumption in order to ensure a healthier planet for the future. There is no buying our way out of that one, it only comes via hard work.

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