To offset or not to offset

As campaign manager, I’d like some input into whether we should offset our campaign or not.  Email me or add your comments below, and I’ll let those comments guide the decision.

Carbon offsets are based on the fact that greenhouse gases are a global problem and that an emissions reduction has the same effect no matter where on the planet it occurs.  It is often cheaper to implement efficiency, clean generation or tree planting projects in developing countries.  Tree planting projects are the sketchiest of the three types of projects (and also the cheapest and thus the most popular) because they don’t actually reduce emissions, but rather count on the trees to absorb them as long as they are standing.  If the trees are removed or burned, the carbon is released again.  The other two types of offsets theoretically keep carbon in the ground, where it belongs.

Carbon offsets are marketed primarily to soothe the conscience of wealthy environmentally aware individuals with high-emissions habits, like flying and driving.  They are also used by companies who want to market themselves as environmentally-friendly, by musicians to offset their tours and by politicians to offset their political campaigns.

Carbon offsets are not expensive.  They run in the $12/tonne of CO2 range at the low end to $22 at the high end.  Our campaign can certainly afford them.

I personally have serious reservations about giving any money to a carbon offset company.  To understand this, I suggest you look at the July 2006 issue of the New Internationalist.  This was a special issue devoted to showing the problems of carbon offsets, titled CO2nned!  Alternately, you can poke around the Carbon Trade Watch site.

In brief, the objections to carbon offsets are:

  1. Many companies use creative accounting by buying “carbon rights” from existing projects so that emissions are not actually reduced at all.
  2. There is no way to determine whether any particular company is actually doing anything at all.
  3. By marketing overwhelmingly to high-end, energy-intensive luxury goods and services (especially flights), carbon offset companies perpetuate a myth that we can solve global warming and continue living the way we are.  In reality, even if we decarbonized the entire developing world, there would still be virtually no place for personal pleasure travel by air in a world seriously committed to solving the climate crisis.  By encouraging a business-as-usual attitude, carbon offsets may actually impede people from taking climate change seriously.
  4. Even where legitimate carbon offset projects are undertaken, they are virtually never monitored, so if a forest burns down or a lightbulb program becomes redundant when another plan comes in, this is not taken into account.
  5. Carbon offsets that depend on reforestation are especially suspect, as forest sinks are difficult to measure, and the enormous timeline required for carbon reabsorption is never monitored, nor could it ever be monitored in any economically viable way.
  6. Carbon offsets overwhelmingly impose the disadvantages of the lifestyles of the rich onto the lives of the poor — for example, when peasant farmers are kicked off their traditional lands to make way for a forest to support the intercontinental flights of people who should know better.
  7. Carbon offsets delay the emissions cut by allowing you to emit now, and invest in future reductions.

On the other hand, David Suzuki enthusiastically supports carbon offsets, and uses them himself, although he does recognize the problems with many offset companies and recommends Gold Standard offsets.  The Green Party of Canada has also announced that the national election campaign will be carbon offset.  The Liberal Party is also offsetting their campaign.

Of the major figures promoting action on climate change, Al Gore offsets his tours, as does Tim Flannery, but my favourite, George Monbiot, has been critical of carbon offsets and has chosen to dramatically reduce travel instead.

If you vote for carbon offsets, I’ll make sure to use one of the Gold Standard companies David Suzuki recommends.

Thanks everyone for your input.

3 responses to “To offset or not to offset”

  1. Mary Ann Grainger writes:

    Yes. I think we should intelligently use carbon offsets. Specifically, to help fund, say, wind turbines in Ontario. We can make those kind of choices, can’t we?


  2. Adriana Mugnatto-Hamu writes:

    Unfortunately, none of the gold standard offsets that David Suzuki recommends are local. There is a company called Native Power that invests in renewable power in the United States, but it doesn’t have a gold standard certification.

  3. Adriana Mugnatto-Hamu writes:

    Jeff Brownridge has just alerted me to an offset company that replaces existing incandescent lights in social housing in southern Ontario with compact fluorescents. At $36.50/tonne, it’s the most expensive offset programme I’ve seen, but it satisfies a lot of the concerns I have with offsets. My only remaining concern is that they haven’t achieved the Gold Standard, and I’d like to know why. I’d also like to urge them to invest in insulation upgrades on new social housing, which would provide an even more durable emissions reduction strategy targetted precisely at the most economical point, rather than throwing out existing and functional incandescents along with all their embodied energy.

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