The fundamental difference of course is that greenhouse gas emissions have the same effect no matter where or how they’re emitted (actually, there are some exceptions – eg, carbon dioxide emitted at high altitudes by planes seems to have more of an effect – but by and large this is true). It makes no difference to the climate whether I emit a tonne of carbon dioxide by driving my car in Sydney or if you emit a tonne of carbon dioxide by having a bonfire in Canada.
Anyway, let’s look at the three criticisms I discussed yesterday that are levelled at the idea of greenhouse offsets.
Carbon offsets are not necessarily effective.
If you drive somewhere, you instantly pump a measurable amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. If you pay a company to invest in a renewable project or plant some trees, how do you really know how much that reduces emissions by?
This is a very valid concern, but it’s not in my mind an argument against offsetting altogether. It just means you need to be careful how you do it. You need methods to measure, verify and audit reductions and methods to deal with uncertainty.
Let’s take an example. Say I want to offset some of my emissions by providing funds to a company that will plant trees to sequester (another great word!) carbon dioxide. Sequester is the cool way to say ‘suck out of the atmosphere’. But there are some issues with this:
- I’m pumping gases into the atmosphere now but the trees will suck it out over a number of years.
- What happens if the trees are destroyed in a bushfire or by disease and the carbon dioxide they’ve sequestered is released back into the atmosphere?
- The rate at which they sequester carbon dioxide is uncertain: it depends, for example, on the weather over the coming years.
And there are various ways we can deal with the timing issues. A simple way, for example, is to count / sell only the emissions that are reduced that year. So, we plant our trees and year one, we estimate they sequester 1-2 tonnes of CO2, so that year we sell 1 tonne’s worth of offsets. Year 2, we estimate they sequester a little more – 1.2 – 2 tonnes, so we sell 1.2 tonnes worth, and so on. Another way is to count up the estimated reductions over the life of the tree and sell them all up-front - but discount their value on the basis that they will only come online gradually and so do not fully compensate for emissions that are all happening in year one.
The devil is in the detail and we need to be vigilant to ensure we get what we pay for, but this is hardly unique to carbon offsets or a reason to reject them as being able to make a valid contribution to dealing with the problem.
Carbon offsets are immoral because they allow people to pay someone else to deal with the problem, rather than taking responsibility for the problem themselves.
I accept that this is a concern for some people; it’s not really a concern for me. I’m interested in seeing that the problem is dealt with. I don’t really care if Bill Gates takes two hour showers and flies around the world in a private jet which he then washes in French champagne and dries with irrigated-Egyptian-cotton bath towels that he then throws away, if he decides to make up for that by funding a solar power plant that will allow a dirty coal power plant to be closed down. I know many readers will feel differently though.
Flowing on from 1 and 2, carbon offsets interfere with other effective measures to combat climate change because they allow people to distance themselves from the problem and so they reduce the pressure on individuals, governments, businesses and communities to take measures that actually will have a real impact.
This is the criticism that resonates most with me. If it’s true that offsets are not sufficiently scrutinised so that they don’t truly offset the emissions they claim to, but we think they are and so we leave it to offsets to deal with the problem – well, that is a problem.
But I don’t really think that offsets do have this effect. I’ve heard similar kinds of arguments about efficient hybrid vehicles like the Prius: they won’t have any positive effect because people will then think that all they have to do to be good green citizens is buy a hybrid. In fact, I think the research shows that people who are buying hybrids and offsets are people who take environmental issues including climate change seriously, and are taking a whole lot of measures in their lives to try and make things better. Rather than encouraging people to switch off and leave it to offsets to deal with the problem, I’m prepared to believe that offset schemes engage people and actually encourage them to take steps to reduce their personal emissions as well.
But enough from me – what do you think?