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Carbon Offset Buyers Go Beyond Surface Green
Emily Gertz, 28 Aug 07
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Is buying personal carbon offsets for dirty-fueled travel an effective way to compensate for the greenhouse gas emissions that are heating up the Earth? And does buying them amount to an indulgence, an excuse for buyers to avoid making more substantial changes in how they live, or demanding sane climate policies?

These are hot (ha) questions lately. As the "green is black" moment moves beyond its early days into a tumultuous adolesence, providers of carbon offsets are easy targets for scrutiny, since their product is an abstract offering: buy this concept and (we promise!) save the Earth.

In some quarters, there's nothing more vital than proving the Green Emperor wears no clothes. But the fact of that sort of narrow self-interest doesn't mean we should ignore the questions raised by the personal carbon offset business: because if people do think buying a carbon offset (or an organic cotton shirt, or nontoxic bathtub cleaner) is making enough of a personal change to slow global warming, then never mind encouraging the complicated or difficult lifestyle shifts that would make a bigger impact; or, demanding fast and effective systemic changes from our political and corporate leaders.

It's also a question of consumer rights: people ought to get what they pay for. And if they get ripped off instead, that may make them just that much more cynical about whether they can or need to change anything in their lives or the life of the nation to solve the climate crisis.

TerraPass has released the results of a customer survey of those who purchase its carbon offsets. The company got a statistically valid sample (it emailed the survey to 11,000 customers; just over 2,000 sent it back), and even allowing the subjective bias of the company, the results are encouraging: of TerraPass customers who answered the survey, 6% have installed solar panels at home -- over two times the national average. 16% drive hybrids (which are just 2.4% of new cars sold in the US this year); around a quarter of respondents bicycle to work or take mass transit -- again, significantly higher than overall national rates. And half the respondents said they have contacted a political representative about climate change.

TerraPass says the survey results bury for good the naysayer argument that carbon offsets are the 21st century equivalent of chuch indulgences. A significant proportion of those who buy carbon offsets, the company says, are cutting their energy use in many other ways as well.

The numbers also reveal a constituency for a sane national climate policy -- good news for environmentalists in both political parties, as well as the realists who see the sense of accounting and planning for climate risk.

Activists across the spectrum of public health, clean energy and enviro issues should also take note. Translating that gesture of contacting a politician about global warming -- presumably writ large across the nation's growing number of green-hued consumers -- into votes for the environment ought to be on the agendas of every eco-advocate.

Image: flickr/elaine faith

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Comments

Not all off-sets are created equal. I agree that the voluntary off-set (credit) market is in disarray at this point but there are projects that create verifiable emission reductions. On aspect of the quality of an off-set is whether that off-set passes the additionally tests. Would that reduction of happened regardless of the income stream associated with the credit or was the financial incentive of the off-set a key driver in the development of a project.

Ex 1. Most wind-farms are developed without consideration for the income stream of the voluntary off-set. Later after that farm has been built a credit marketer or broker will come along and purchase the credits for a very small value and market those credits to consumers. This kind of credit I would consider questionable in terms of whether the off-set did what the marketers are claiming… that is really “off-set,” emissions.

Ex. 2 A company or utility wants/needs to go carbon neutral/reduce carbon) and the only feasible way (because of cost, because of logistics) is to off-set emissions. The go to a livestock farmer and tell the farmer that they will pay for a portion (or incentivize) the project to use the methane emissions to power a gas generator. Here we have a clear reduction of GHGs. These higher quality credits have a higher value in the market and thus a higher cost as well.

There is a case that can be made that the purchase of RECs are supporting a cleantech companies and over time this support with lead to more projects and a trickle down green consumerism benifit.

Nevertheless, it is important as consumers to understand which projects and credits are of the quality that support companies/people claims for real emissions reductions or carbon neutrality.


Posted by: Jan Rosen - MotivEarth on 28 Aug 07

While the results of the survey are encouraging, given that respondents are taking multiple measures, what isn't immediately obvious is whether the survey responses captured those people who have only just started to make a 'green' shift and it might actually give a false perception of the extent of people who give a damn. Does the fact that 11000 surveys were sent and only 18-19% took the time to respond say that 80% of us are still too busy, even if we are aware. I also accept though that is difficult in general to get a proper picture (rather than a statistically relevant one) with time poor respondees.

There is also still the very real issue that people purchase offsets to feel good about existing behaviour, rather than to complement changed behaviour. How do I know this? Without pointing fingers, all I can say is greenwash is alive and well, and it's just too crazy to demonstrate behaviour change and get others to follow suit.....

This is the real challenge of offsets - it should be seen as part of an overall education strategy - a tool, not an outcome unto itself.


Posted by: Michael on 29 Aug 07

I read your post avidly as this is an issue that I have been struggling with for quite a while. I have chosen to off-set flights a couple of times. I don't drive and I use Good Energy (100% renewables) for home, and soon at work as well, so I suppose that I fit with TerraPass' findings quite well, which to be honest, don't really surprise me. Those who choose to offset are clearly more likely to make other lifestyle changes, as anyone I know who wouldn't offset has absolutely no interest in changing their behavior in any way. The reason I took an interest in the post was the fact that I'm not sure to what extent offsetting helps, and whom it is best to use. I would be very interested in anyone's thoughts on this?


Posted by: Ian Crawford on 30 Aug 07

Optimistic figures float around about how cheap it would be for the average american consumer to offset their carbon. Numbers like $300/year. Even if those offsets are real (and not just someone planting a tree in an area that may or may not be forested in perpetuity), it's likely that were carbon offsets to be used widely, that price would go up dramatically, as the "low hanging fruit" - the carbon that's easy to offset - becomes scarce. And I agree with the poster who notes that ex-post-facto credits for projects that would have gone ahead regardless of whether the carbon offset income stream existed, shouldn't count. Paying for those credits has no effect on overall emissions. The city that I live in (Pasadena, CA) has a "green power" option. You pay a 10% premium, and get 100% wind power. Which sounds great. Except that it has no effect on the amount of wind power the city buys (we have a municipal utility). They're stuck with 5% renewable (wind), and 65% coal, because that's what's available to them for purchase on the grid. If more than 5% of the city wanted green power, they'd have to tell them "Sorry, we're all out." (if they were being honest). But as it is, only about 2% of the city wants green power (and it's been that way for a while now), and we effectively provide the city utility with a voluntary subsidy, that has no effect on its power purchasing decisions.

All this is to say, none of these voluntary measures will make a large difference in the long run. No one wants to make a business plan with a 30 year time horizon, for a renewable power plant, based on the idea that people might volunteer to pay extra, or offset their carbon. And so long as only 2% of us are even interested, it won't have a material effect. Additionally, the overwhelming majority (67% in Pasadena) of electricity is used by industrial and commercial customers, who are much less likely to voluntarily cut their bottom line.

Eventually, carbon will simply have to be taxed, and businesses will have to believe that those taxes aren't going to be lobbied away, so that the market can adjust to the idea that warming up the earth isn't free.


Posted by: Zane Selvans on 30 Aug 07

Thank you for this article, Emily.
For a year now, I've been offsetting my house's emissions by purchasing the equivalent of 1100 kwH/month in wind power. I understand that my investment doesn't "buy" wind power for my house (as the cute little window decals the power company sends might suggest), and I also understand that these offsets aren't a free pass to live wastefully. I buy them because I think I'm sending a message to the power company--that their investment in wind power means enough to me that I'm willing to pay extra for it. My hope is that if enough people send this message, the company will at least consider increasing their investment. Zane's post suggests that this is a false hope. Is it?

I wholeheartedly support a carbon tax, but until that time, aren't offsets (and voluntary lifestyle changes) worthwhile?


Posted by: Lindsay Ratcliffe on 31 Aug 07

Thank you for this article, Emily.
For a year now, I've been offsetting my house's emissions by purchasing the equivalent of 1100 kwH/month in wind power. I understand that my investment doesn't "buy" wind power for my house (as the cute little window decals the power company sends might suggest), and I also understand that these offsets aren't a free pass to live wastefully. I buy them because I think I'm sending a message to the power company--that their investment in wind power means enough to me that I'm willing to pay extra for it. My hope is that if enough people send this message, the company will at least consider increasing their investment. Zane's post suggests that this is a false hope. Is it?

I wholeheartedly support a carbon tax, but until that time, aren't offsets (and voluntary lifestyle changes) worthwhile?


Posted by: Lindsay Ratcliffe on 31 Aug 07

Thank you for this article, Emily.
For a year now, I've been offsetting my house's emissions by purchasing the equivalent of 1100 kwH/month in wind power. I understand that my investment doesn't "buy" wind power for my house (as the cute little window decals the power company sends might suggest), and I also understand that these offsets aren't a free pass to live wastefully. I buy them because I think I'm sending a message to the power company--that their investment in wind power means enough to me that I'm willing to pay extra for it. My hope is that if enough people send this message, the company will at least consider increasing their investment. Zane's post suggests that this is a false hope. Is it?

I wholeheartedly support a carbon tax, but until that time, aren't offsets (and voluntary lifestyle changes) worthwhile?


Posted by: Lindsay Ratcliffe on 31 Aug 07

I agree that we need to ask questions about the offset business. But I also worry that this discourse -- that there's still a debate about the value of offsets -- mirrors the one that created a "debate" about the existence of climate change.

There have been many articles and studies that question various aspects of certain offsetting schemes and plans (some outlined above). But I think the strongest argument, and the one that needs to be considered any time offsets are discussed, is that the CO2 reductions needed to prevent environmental catastrophes require people to seek out programs that legitimately reduce emissions and also stop doing the things that they're offsetting. George Monbiot's book makes this clear (the specific point is summarized in this Guardian article).

For example: Offsetting emissions from air travel is never going to be enough, in other words -- air travel simply has to be reduced dramatically around the globe.

Arguing about the existence of climate change delayed any kind of significant political action by at least a decade; arguing about the merits of a system that will never adequately address the problem could cause a similar destructive delay.


Posted by: J Mac on 1 Sep 07

I don't understand the whole "buy offsets that fund a
new project" thing. Wouldn't it be far more reliable
to simply buy emissions credits from an established
market like Europe?


Posted by: Jane Shevtsov on 4 Sep 07

I write about this a lot on my site that covers global warming (http://www.globalwarming-factorfiction.com) and I am typically very skeptical of carbon trading schemes.

P.T. Barnum supposedly said that there was a sucker born every minute. Sometimes, when I read about carbon credits, I am not sure who the sucker is - the person buying, the person selling, or the general public for thinking it is helping!

In order for credits to be feasible and to be more than a “feel good” gesture, we need solid accounting, accountability, and penalties. We have none of that now and this article makes this painfully clear. We cannot allow credits to be used for minor contributions to a project. The credit must go to the cost of reducing the greenhouse gas.


Posted by: Sean O on 5 Sep 07

For those of us skeptics who believe buying personal carbon offsets to be a scam, it's not to knock the true believers. No doubt some customers are going green, but is that enough?

Focusing on environmental travel, we would do better if an entire airline buys into carbon neutrality. And better still if an entire nation comes on board.


Posted by: Ron Mader on 9 Sep 07

G'Day from Australia, Dont forget about us, we are also leading change.

Carbon credits and offsets here in Australia... the NSW goverment, through an abatement scheme has in the last 12mths entered 500,000 homes and, FREE of charge, changed light globes to energy efficent globes and changed old type shower heads for new, 5 star, water efficent ones, creating a carbon credit certificate per home which is now traded to large business to off set their huge emissions, the money from this goes directly to improve the enviroment. This scheme looks likely to be introduced in every state and territory across Australia.

We are slowly becoming more aware of carbon credits, even the countries largest chain hardware store is granting funding for R&D into new programs and tools that can produce carbon credits, which they intend to use to off set their own emissions as well as benefit the comminuity long term.

Cheers,


Posted by: Geoff Gourley on 10 Sep 07



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