Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Hypocrisy of Carbon Offsets

In an effort to attach the word “green” to a company, project, cause, or a person, some people have taken to purchasing what is called a “carbon offset” to make up for the carbon emissions they may be generating. Some companies or agencies buy them to comply with regulations for their carbon dioxide CO2) emissions, while smaller groups or individuals may do so just to show they are taking steps to make amends, so to speak, for their own emissions. The money used to purchase these offsets is used to help develop and promote alternative, carbon neutral energy sources and to promote a green lifestyle. A downside with carbon offsets is that at times they can still be difficult to measure and validate, and they are intangible. For example, CO2 generated from, for example, a jet flight across the US could vary greatly based on the size of the jet, its total weight, weather conditions, length of flight (which can changed based on weather or airport landing/takeoff delays), etc.

I also question whether the money paid for carbon offsets really are completely used for the purpose that they are intended. It seems like a large black hole to me where money goes in, but who knows where, and how, it comes out.

But the problem that I see with carbon offsets is that it still allows the underlying behavior that is generating the carbon emissions to continue. To me, it’s almost like paying up front for forgiveness or absolution. Imagine paying a priest at the time you confess to whatever sin you’ve committed, the amount of the payment based on the severity of the sin. One wouldn’t really give too much thought to the sin if they could afford to pay it off. Think of large companies who pay the offset to make up for failing to meet emission standards; the price of the offset apparently isn’t enough of a penalty for them to change their behavior.

I get most annoyed with celebrities – actors, musicians, politicians, etc. – who have large events and then purchase carbon offsets to make up for it. The most glaring example of this was the Live Earth concert in 2007, which were concerts that were held in multiple locations worldwide to raise awareness of climate change. The event was touted as being carbon neutral, with organizers promising to buy carbon offsets to make up for impact of the flights associated with the concerts. What they didn’t account for was all the carbon dioxide generated for the hundreds of thousands who attended these events across the world. And, according to Wikipedia:

The event's total carbon footprint, including the artists' and spectators' travel and energy consumption, was probably at least 74,500 tonnes, according to John Buckley of - more than 3,000 times the average Briton's annual footprint. Performers flew at least 222,623.63 miles (about 358,278 kilometres) — the equivalent of nearly nine times round the planet — to take part in the event, and this figure does not include transport of technicians, dancers and support staff…Concert-goers at the event’s London leg had left thousands of plastic cups on the floor of Wembley Stadium, although organisers had urged audience members to use the recycling bins provided, the BBC reported.”

Most recently, there was an event in Orange County, California to benefit Oceana
(I have the article and link to the news story on my Law & Order blog, here), where Oceana raised over $1 million, but reported to have purchase $1,000 in offsets to account for the carbon generated by the party. The news report also said that some of the celebrities in attendance traveled to the event by helicopter. It seems silly for an organization that wants to protect and preserve the world’s oceans would use helicopters to transport attendees and allow them to pollute the air just so they can raise the $1 million for their own cause. I liken it to someone who wants to protect the land having a fundraiser on a cruise ship, where they cruise over, and damage, an endangered coral reef.

So while I think that carbon offsets are at least a start for people to account for their harm to the earth’s environment, there has to be a way that they can raise money for their causes without overly polluting the environment to do so. It’s nice that the celebrities give their time and presence to important causes, but protecting our environment takes more than just famous faces. It takes a change in behavior. Being green can’t be a “do as I say, not as I do” effort. Companies and organizations need to just start doing!

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