Carbon Offsetting: Snake Oil for the 21st Century

 

OK I am really quite angry about this- I feel like a puppet being used to cajole people into buying carbon offsets, a phenomenon I agree with George Monbiot and others equates to little more than the selling of indulgences.

Just when I thought I had seen the last of the media coverage of my plane-free journey, up pops an article by Co-op America that uses my story to encourage Americans to buy their way to “carbon neutrality.” Many offset companies are preying on Americans who are suddenly becoming aware of the vast damage being done to the planet from their routine, everyday activities, channelling that fear and goodwill into corporate bank accounts, instead of making necessary lifestyle changes and pressing for political reform.

 

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of companies out there claiming to make your polluting life “carbon neutral.” There’s a lot of money to be made from green products and services these days, so it’s important to be skeptical. I have asked Co-op America to print a retraction in its National Green Pages, and online where the story appeared, and they have agreed.

 

As Monbiot says, “They are telling us that we don’t need to be citizens; we need only be better consumers.”

 

Here is the letter I sent to Co-op America on Friday:

 

Dear Coop America,

 

My name is Josh Hart, and I am the climate activist who traveled from San Francisco to the UK last year without flying or driving. I was featured in the March/ April issue of Real Money as part of your feature on carbon offsetting.

 

I wanted to correct several false assertions in the article. First of all I am really quite angry that you used my story to promote carbon offsetting, a phenomenon I consider deceptive, dangerous, and counter-productive to climate protection efforts.

 

In your article, you printed: “(Carbon offsets) help Josh easily calculate how much of an investment will result in a GHG reduction to match the GHGs generated by his share of the flight.

 

For the record, I have never used carbon offsets, and have never promoted their use by anyone. In fact in my initial e-mail to your reporter, Joelle Novey, I wrote:

 

“There is very little potential to make aviation sustainable. The only meaningful way to reduce the impact of aviation is to fly less. A lot less. Like 90% less.”

 

I am against carbon offsets for the following reasons:

 

1. By claiming that offsets allow you to be ‘carbon neutral,’ offsetting firms are as deceptive, if not more so than the church’s sale of indulgences in the 15th and 16th centuries- you could commit all sorts of crimes like incest and murder as long as you paid off the church to “offset” your sins. Now apparently you can not only ‘offset’ your CO2 emissions but your marital infidelity as well- see http://cheatneutral.com

 

2. Carbon offset projects do not undo the damage that flying and driving cause. To pretend that they do falsely relieves guilt, delays crucial behavior change and undermines political will needed to prevent a climate crisis of unimaginable scale.

 

3. Carbon offsetting is an unregulated industry that has no standards governing its operation. There are hundreds of unscrupulous offsetting schemes being set up and preying on people’s valid concerns about global warming.

 

4. A ton of carbon saved now is far more important to climate stability than one saved in the future, because carbon traps heat over time. This is not calculated in most offset schemes.

 

5. Trees planted to “offset” carbon may well die in their lifetimes because of the effects of climate change. Regardless, when the tree dies it releases its stored carbon back into the atmosphere. This doesn’t undo the damage, just delays it perhaps.

 

6. A simple test is this- if everyone “offset” their carbon emissions, would we be collectively carbon neutral? No- if we still burned fossil fuels, there is no way of stopping the damage that those emissions cause. As George Monbiot, says, offsetting is like ‘pushing the food around on your plate to give the impression that you have eaten it.” See http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2006/10/19/selling-indulgences/

 

 

Carbon offsetting, though often conducted by well-meaning individuals, is a deceptive practice and counterproductive to the urgent necessity to immediately and drastically cut our fossil fuel burning. To pretend otherwise simply allows destructive and unnecessary travel behaviour to continue by giving the false impression that you can be “carbon neutral” and pollute at the same time. This is simply not the case.

 

We need to do all we can to immediately cut our carbon emissions at the source- that means driving and flying a whole lot less. Period. That means cycling and walking for shorter journeys, taking the train or the bus instead of flying, and avoiding long-distance travel wherever possible in favor of local getaways. It also means buying locally grown or produced goods wherever possible.

 

I urge you to cease your support for carbon offset programs, and instead focus your publicity on energy efficiency, encouraging behavior change, and building a broad based political movement to press the United States government to embark on an Apollo-scale effort to cut our emissions. That is the only way we are going to get this problem under control.

 

We can’t buy our way out of this one, I’m afraid.

 

Sincerely,

 

Joshua Hart

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3 responses to “Carbon Offsetting: Snake Oil for the 21st Century

  1. Actually, cheatneutral.com is on your side — it’s a sarcastic parody of carbon offsets.

  2. I read the Co-op America article as well as your response to it (which they printed). I’m still on the fence about offsets, but I agreed with many of the points you made. I’m glad that a thoughtful environmentalist like you is willing speak out about the downsides of offsetting schemes, lest we get too cozy in the complacency of eco-groupthink :)

  3. Josh. I am the global correspondent for bicycling magazine. Tomorrow I am leaving for the Netherlands, where I will spend two weeks bicycling through the country and interviewing bicycle infracture specialists. I’ve read some of your work and seems like you’ve already covered some of this ground. Wondering if you have any bicycle contacts in Holland, especially in Groningen and Amsterdam. Please email me at mark@globalcorrespondent.net, or call, 307-745-0010.

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