I like offsets: there, I've gone and said it. Other than genetic engineering and biofuels, there may be at the moment no solution more controversial among eco-activists than offsets. That's a shame, because they make good sense.
Much of the criticism centers around two objections: that they don't work, or that they're just wrong.
The evidence critics most frequently that they don't work is that some people have set up completely ineffective offsetting systems, even faux offsetting. The moral argument seems to be based mostly on the idea that paying money for good things to happen in order to make up for doing other harm is wrong, a contention many disagree with.
It is possible to design away the problems with offsets, and it seems like there's even an increasingly good tool chest for doing so:
* The Western Climate Initiative's new Draft Offsets Design Recommendations (PDF), which identified the following design criteria:
"Administratively simple and cost effective,
Operationally straightforward for participants,
Ensures integrity of emission reductions,
Adds to economic efficiency of the cap and trade system,
Stimulates innovation and provides co-benefits,
Enhances transparency and minimizes uncertainty, and
Facilitates linkage with other programs."
* The Green-e Climate certification program, which
"...strengthens the voluntary market by providing credible oversight and transparency to retail greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction products (offsets), from beginning to end. Consumers purchasing Green-e Climate Certified offsets have clear information about the projects their GHG reductions are sourced from, and are guaranteed that no one else can claim their offset. The program verifies that a seller's supply of offsets equals their sales, that GHG reductions are independently certified, and that consumer disclosures are accurate."
* TerraPass' industry-leading transparency practices, which are setting a bar for what ethical offsets look like (note: TerraPass has advertised on Worldchanging, but that's not why I like them).
In fact, one of the things that's interesting about the new wave of offset standards is that they reinforce an important, but little-noted data point: that it appears that most of the people buying offsets care more about the planet, not less, than the average person. While a few may buy offsets as a form of indulgence, and then go off on crazy carbon-sprees (bingeing on emissions with falsely clear consciences), in my experience, most people use offsets the way they ought to be used: as a way to go the last, otherwise impassable mile when walking your talk.
there just isn't enough control of things like this. down-market mortgages got turned into a monster when the regulation was taken away. you can't prevent that -- the opportunity to make much more money in the short term -- it's what the system is set up for, now.
so you can say, "know what you buy," but who knew that subprime loans were being rated AAA and resold? could you have asked your credit union about that? how would you really know, i mean really know, that you didn't end up buying a piece of the "ultra mega" complex in india?
I think you hit it on the head...offsets are a great way for the little guys to do something solid about their impact. Transparency is key though. Another option our company has been using is the Bonneville Environmental Foundation. We've found that they have solid transparency like TerraPass and offer affordable carbon credits called Green Tags at $20 which is equal to 1,000 kilowatt-hours of renewable energy being poured onto North America's power grids.
At that cost, even bootstrapped startups can afford to minimize their impact.
Offsetting simply confuses the issue. It's very simple and the complexity of voluntary emissions reductions versus certified emissions reductions and standards and procedures for offsetting etc etc all just confuses the glaringly obvious issue:
It's the developed world that has the highest per capita carbon footprint. It's the developed world where the reductions need to be made. When you next offset that 'unavoidable' flight think about the fact that it's paying for emissions reductions in countries where each person is responsible for a fraction of someone of the emissions in the developed world.
We need pure cap and trade markets where polluters are forced to reduce or purchase credits from *another polluter in that same market*. The confusing world of certification and CERs vs VERs is not making carbon reduction a real economic driver. Don't get me wrong, we need a global market, but it must be pure cap-and-trade, and implemented by a political body, not a commercial company helping consumers in the West continue living their high-footprint lives.
Offsets are a conundrum, and you lay out the facts clearly and succinctly. But your first commenter (above) also raises a valid question - how do you know where the money goes? In my region, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District offers a locally-based offset program that builds or buys tangible offset technologies (such as methane digesters for dairy farms, tree planting) right here in the Central Valley. I know that the money I send them is channeled to real and effective programs.