Just a few short weeks ago I touched on carbon offsets. In piece entitled The ABCs of Carbon Offsets I pitched them as an imperfect, yet viable way to take responsibility for the emissions we create despite efforts to curb our polluting activities.
I like that word: responsibility. And I especially like it as relates to offsets. I believe it determines, in large part, the true outcome and benefit of any given offset program. And, as we're finding, offsets are quite responsible in their intent--most of the time. They can also be otherwise.
I write today to shine the spotlight on the critical side of the balance sheet. I want to bring your attention to issues raised by those who stake out the position that 'pollution trading'--a good choice of words from a framing point of view--is, in balance, creating more harm than good. That offset programs and participants exploit the poor (in developing countries and regions), create a massive profit center for industry, and let the most eggregious corporate polluters off the hook. Here's some of what is said:
"Offsets place disproportionate emphasis on individual lifestyles and carbon footprints, distracting attention from the wider, systemic changes and collective political action that needs to be taken to tackle climate change." (From the non-profit Carbon Trade Watch in a piece promoting a new report called The Carbon Neutral Myth)
"Some types of carbon-offset initiatives may actually slow the changes aimed at coping with global warming by prolonging consumers' dependence on oil, coal, and gas, and encouraging them to take more short-haul flights and drive bigger cars than they would otherwise have done." (From a 2.20.07 article in the NY Times entitled Guilt-Free Pollution. Or Is It?)
"Some carbon-offset firms have begun to acknowledge that certain investments like tree-planting may be ineffective, and they are shifting their focus to what they say is reliable activity, like wind turbines, cleaner burning stoves, or buying up credits that otherwise would allow companies to pollute." (From the same NY Times article)
"Many environmentalists and indigenous communities around the world fear that use of sinks will have a negligible impact on reducing global warming while having an enormous impact on people worldwide as poor countries, desperate to earn money to pay back debts, look to selling their lands and forests for the carbon markets." (From the Carbon Trade Watch web site discussion of carbon sinks for sequestering carbon dioxide emissions)
Bottom line, there are truths in the criticism. And though I, and many others, promote their use, carbon offsets can be exploited, can have negative impacts, and can distract. I urge you to learn from the objections and be a smarter, more informed buyer. Very little in this sustainability challenge is clear cut, but responsible choices and responsible actions will be clear to those who follow their eConsciousness and do their homework.
Remember, too--and here, proponents and opponents both agree--our personal and collective efforts to reduce emissions when and wherever possible are first and foremost.