Offsetting Works

Yes, I’m an offsetter. Does that mean I can now live without guilt? Unlikely, but it is the right thing to do.

Many people, even sustainability people, make fun of offsetting and try to discredit it whenever they can. They point to the fact that it isn’t real, “it’s just passing the buck” said one marketing manager ironically working for carbon finace company that makes its money sourcing and financing large scale offset projects.

The lack of reality in offsets is inaccurate. Offsets are real and companies can produce them ethically. The challenge lies in the lack of oversight and regulation that needs to be present in order to mitigate profit-seekers and market scammers. I agree that some offsets are better than others, some are really good, and some currently are a scam. I could spend the rest of the time telling you which ones are better than the others, but I have something more important to do, to convince you that paying a little extra for our carbon intensive lifestyles will prevent global climatic change and avoid huge natural disasters in the process.

If you are concerned about climate change, the first step is to do all you can to reduce your emissions, travel less, eat better, shop and invest smarter, be more efficient in everyway. Even with all these measures, each of us will still have above acceptable emission levels, so we need to leave some things to the market to take care of for us and, as they say, put our money where our mouth is.

Voluntarily paying to offset your green house gas emissions means that you’re responsible enough to cover the costs of a negative externality for which you know has a cost. A cost that isn’t currently included in the price of our plane tickets, gasoline, and other fossil fuel purchases.

There is no fundamental difference between buying offsets, and purchasing fair trade coffee, certified organic food, or Rainforest Alliance bananas. All of these consumer choices currently result in us paying a premium to counteract something negative that has been occurring in our world.

So why do people criticize carbon offsets and not these other ethical purchasing habits? Well, for one it’s harder to comprehend, you don’t get to enjoy a warm roasted coffee or a fresh banana after your purchase. You have to give someone, often a company you don’t know, money to invest in some project possibly on the other side of the world that will prevent more of these invisible heat trapping gases from being emitted into the atmosphere. And to make matters even more challenging, offsetting is going to cost you something.

Unlike paying an extra twenty cents to buy your ethical coffee, purchasing offsets will be felt on your pocketbook. It might even hurt enough to actually deter people from choosing the carbon intensive activity in the first place. But that’s the whole point isn’t it?

Our current economic system created over 200 years ago, wasn’t designed to determine the true cost of what we are buying. Through offsetting, we pay for our negative actions by making something positive happen somewhere else.

For the skeptics out there, stop the griping, if you say you care about climate change, show it through your purchase choices.

Still in disbelief? Don’t think our offset funds can do much to save the day?

Why not consider how much investment in the low carbon economy we would have if every human on the planet paid for our personal carbon excess.

The United Nations believes a climate stability target can be reached at two tonnes CO2 per person per year (two tonnes per person is the calculated amount that has been estimated as the Earth’s maximum ability to absorb the green house gases that we produce). Paying the difference is similar to the carbon rationing system proposed by George Monbiot. This is the best option we have unless governments can collectively agree on a policy that restricts all greenhouse gas emissions and charges for the pollution at the source.

Currently, roughly 2.67 billion people on the planet are living in countries where their per capita carbon footprint is over two tonnes per year. The citizens of United States, amongst the highest nations for per capita emissions, is now over 20 tonnes each, making them liable for 18 tonnes of carbon a person. The Chinese now have annual emissions totaling 3.9 tonnes per person, making each citizen there responsible for 1.9 tonnes of carbon. All told, these 2.67 billion “rich and lucky” citizens of the planet Earth would be responsible for 14,676,400,000 tonnes. Nearly 14.7 billion tonnes with costs to be covered. At a fair price of $30 US per tonne of Carbon, this amounts to a huge sum of $440 billion paid by global citizens every year, or on average, $165 each. Sound like a lot? $440 billion is, nearly three times the total investment in Cleantech (clean technologies: renewable energy, low carbon technologies, etc.) in 2007 of $148 billion.

This level of investment for just one year could provide clean electricity for over 150 million Americans, or 500 million Chinese.

Okay, so this is definitely idyllic, but it shows what’s possible. The majority of residents in places like China can’t afford to individually pay for their excess carbon, and quite often it should be the responsibility of their government and the businesses proliferating there.

Let’s look at what could really happen in the next few years if just all the wealthy global citizens and residents of the traditionally developed world (Western Europe, Japan, the United States, Canada, Australia, etc.) paid for their excess emissions. Removing most of the 1.2 billion Chinese and the like, we are still left with roughly 1 billion people and 10.56 billion tonnes of carbon obligation (remember the population responsible has dropped significantly, but the developed countries pollute the most per capita, so total CO2 has not decreased at a similar rate).

Before we calculate this final number, we will be even more rational, according to several reports, due to national inefficiencies in infrastructure, each citizen is only likely accountable for 45% of their total emissions. For instance, because of the coal heavy power structure and other trademarks of the US economy, 8.5 tonnes of CO2 emissions per person is unavoidable. A 2008 MIT study found that a homeless person in the United States had a carbon footprint of 8.5 tonnes, and a US Buddhist monk is still over 10 tonnes no matter what they do.

At 45% of what we can control, our carbon obligation is 4.75 billion tonnes, 4.75 tonnes each. This leaves us with a bill of $142.5 billion or $142.50 each per year. If paid in full, we would effectively nearly double the level of investment in Cleantech last year. Enough to take almost 43 million Americans or 143 million Chinese off coal power in just one year.

If each of us chose to be accountable for our carbon emissions, by reducing and then paying for what we can’t reduce, we would be well on our way to dealing with the climate challenge. In fact, we would be making real, large scale reductions before the world governments have a chance to organize another conference to talk about the problem. Offset critics take a rest and reflect, isn’t it time we just fixed the problem and moved on?


About derm

I have a job in Scotland, working on business and climate change. With a passion for and graduate schooling in whole-systems sustainability from Sweden, I try to keep my hand on the pulse of the sustainability world through various side-projects with friends and peers. I've written reports on water, on true costing of food and natural resources, responsible investing, and on global organizational networks. I love hill running, probably because I left all the powder skiing back in British Columbia. I also love seeing things grow and looking at something familiar with new eyes. I think I could live happily for a year on pizza and nachos, although I'd prefer to not find out. I believe wild animals have a message for us, and it may be something to do with the fact that they've been getting a bum deal on this planet lately. When I was little I believed that there was someone special out there for each and everyone of us. I still believe that. I know world is a complex place, and feel that open and honest communication is probably one of the few sure ways to lead us to success.
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