Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Carbon offsetting: neutral shmeutral?

As you may have heard, the Oxford American Dictionary declared “carbon neutral” the word of the year in 2006 (shouldn’t that be ‘phrase of the year?’). It pipped other words / phrases such as “dwarf planet” (poor Pluto) and “elbow bump” (a greeting in which two people touch elbows, recommended by the World Health Organization as an alternative to the handshake in order to reduce the spread of germs) for the for the title.

The idea of carbon offsetting is that rather than (or, preferably, as well as) reducing your own greenhouse gas emissions, you fund projects that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere. The most common projects are tree-planting or renewable energy projects. Trees suck up carbon dioxide as they grow, while renewable energy projects provide energy to communities at much lower emission levels than they would otherwise get from traditional energy sources. So rather than foregoing a trip to Europe because of all the emissions that would produce, you take the flight but pay a carbon offset company to act as a broker and direct your money to projects that will reduce an equivalent amount of emissions somewhere else. Thus your flight is 'carbon neutral'.

It’s one measure that individuals can take – as individuals – to help reduce the problem and, in an environment where governments seem reluctant to do anything, it is proving popular. If you can take realistic measures to reduce your own emissions: drive less (or not at all) and walk, cycle or use public transport instead, reduce your energy and water consumption at home (hang your clothes out to dry instead of using a dryer, open windows instead of turning on the air conditioner, etc etc), buy green energy for the electricity you use; then you can offset your remaining emissions (there are various online calculators to estimate your emissions) and sleep somewhat contentedly in the knowledge that at least you’re not making a net contribution to the problem. Apparently, the carbon offset industry was worth around A$150 million last year.

But there are plenty of criticisms of the scheme from various quarters and angles. Tim Harford in his book The Undercover Economist criticises the notion as uneconomic and I’ll discuss that another time. But most of the criticisms come from the green side of the fence and are along one of the following lines:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Via the Gristmill blog, CheatNeutral nicely illustrates some of these criticisms.

CheatNeutral is a site that allows people to offset the negative impacts of cheating on their partners, by paying other people not to cheat on theirs.

What is Cheat Offsetting?

When you cheat on your partner you add to the heartbreak, pain and jealousy in the atmosphere.

Cheatneutral offsets your cheating by funding someone else to be faithful and NOT cheat. This neutralises the pain and unhappy emotion and leaves you with a clear conscience.

Can I offset all my cheating?
First you should look at ways of reducing your cheating. Once you've done this you can use Cheatneutral to offset the remaining, unavoidable cheating.

Yes, it’s satirical. But it makes some serious points:

Five ways that Cheatneutral is like carbon offsetting:

Cheatneutral tries to make it seem acceptable to cheat on your partner. In the same way, carbon offsetting tries to make it acceptable to carry on emitting excess

Cheatneutral doesn't really do much to reduce the amount of cheating in the world. Carbon offsetting does very little to reduce global carbon emissions.

It seems impossible to measure how much harm cheating on someone does. With carbon offsetting, there is currently no practically feasible way of measuring how much carbon offset projects actually save.

Having Cheatneutral's services available could actually encourages you o cheat more. [sic] If the carbon offsetters persuade you that it's possible to offset your emissions, you'll carry on emitting excess carbon through your lifestyle rather than think about reducing your emissions.

Cheatneutral is fundamentally the wrong way to go about solving problems with your relationships. Carbon offsetting is fundamentally the wrong way to go about tackling climate change.

Two ways which Cheatneutral is not like carbon offsetting:

We don't make any money out of Cheatneutral. Offset companies in the voluntary carbon market take a cut of every transaction and make a profit.

Cheatneutral is a joke we thought up in the pub. Carbon offsetting presents itself as a credible solution to climate change, described by the government's chief scientist Sir David King as “the most severe problem that we are facing today, more serious even than the threat of terrorism...”

So is trying to offset greenhouse gas emissions like trying to offsetting infidelity? I’ll give you some of my thoughts in a later post.


Anonymous said...

I thought 'muffin top' was the word of the year?

David Jeffery said...

Positively nucular. Yeah I heard something like that too - maybe that's the Macquarie Dictionary word of the year.

Ru said...

Hi Dave,
I run one of those scammy cheating offset projects. Come on down to www.treeflights.com and put us under some serious forensic examination. Please do so with an open a mind as you can muster.
The situation isn't quite as simple as your assessment implies.
Ru Hartwell.

David Jeffery said...

Hi Ru,

That's not my assessment, that's the assessment of the folks at cheatneutral. As I said in the post, I'm outlining some of the criticisms that have been levelled and I'll be giving my own views in a later post.

Would be glad to hear any counter-arguments to those of cheatneutral's that you wish to present though.

Anonymous said...

This article on the topic just came out today: http://www.triplepundit.com/pages/askpablo-land-use-changes-002571.php

Anonymous said...

Hey if cheatneutral really wants too do this it should get serious!

Firstly there is already an established market for cheating � prostitution. If cheatneutral priced there cheating offset at current market prices this would greatly increase the cost of cheating. At the current price of �2.50, which wouldn�t get you a good cup of tea let alone a root, cheatneutral provides no disincentive to cheat. What would the impact be if a cheat offset were �100?

Secondly, cheatneutral need to get up to speed with their offset projects. The current projects don�t measure up. Their projects pay people who are currently not cheating to continue to not cheat. Instead they should be paying prostitutes, at market rates, to not have sex with people in relationships. This would reduce the net amount of pain and unhappy emotion emitted to the atmosphere.

So come on guys get serious about using market instruments to reduce cheating.