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Do carbon offsets really work?

Any business model that takes my money in exchange for an unverifiable promise to do something at some future date naturally seems like fertile ground for fraud and abuse to me. For this reason, I've been skeptical of the whole "carbon offsets" racket ever since I'd heard about it. Who regulates these groups? How are they audited? I'd have a lot of questions before investing in such a dubious enterprise, and I doubt they could be answered to my satisfaction.

But then again, I'm a cynical old bastard. I shouldn't even be entertaining the thought that these are anything but legit services being owned and operated by honest and well-meaning folk. But even if we assume nothing but good faith on their part, there are still valid reasons to doubt these offsets actually accomplish what they claim.

For instance, check out these two articles. The first is from The Economist, and it illustrates how such programs often backfire -- fueling, for example, the demand for more dirty power rather than less. Again, this has nothing to do with bad faith on the part of the offset providers, but rather is a straightforward consequence of simple economics. I often wish the enviro crowd had a better grasp of economics. If they did, they'd no longer make me nervous.

The other article is from the New York Times, but it's behind that "Times Select" firewall crap thingie, so I'll just provide a brief excerpt. The Times piece also gives the offsets market the benefit of a doubt for honesty and good intentions, but illustrates by example how the vagaries of the whole enterprise often result in a real-world offset ratio that is much less than one-to-one.

'These companies may be operating with the best will in the world, but they are doing so in settings where it's not really clear you can monitor and enforce their projects over time,'' said Steve Rayner, a senior professor at Oxford and a member of a group working on reducing greenhouse gases for the International Panel on Climate Change. ''What these companies are allowing people to do is carry on with their current behavior with a clear conscience.''

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.
When it comes to the offsets these companies offer, many environmental groups seem to be even more skeptical than Professor Rayner.

Climate Care, the company that Mr. Grover used to offset his and his girlfriend's carbon footprint, also undertook a project to finance the distribution of tens of thousands of low-energy fluorescent lights in South African townships.

Shortly after the program got under way, however, a state energy utility distributed millions of similar bulbs free. That meant that the ''so-called reductions that Climate Care is selling to its customers arguably would have happened anyway,'' said Larry Lohmann of the Corner House, a campaign group for environmental and social justice based in Britain, citing evidence from investigators in South Africa.

For me, the bottom line is this. Simpler is often better. If you want to conserve energy, conserve energy. That's a good thing. If you want to plant trees, plant trees. And for that matter, if you want to buy carbon offsets, then buy some. They probably accomplish some good, but we shouldn't kid ourselves into thinking they do more than they do. They can't unconsume limited resources, for example, and they almost certainly don't offset nearly as much human activity as they claim. In short, if you're concerned about the environment you'd be much better served to try to minimize your footprint directly than allowing yourself to believe you can lead an unaltered lifestyle and buy your way into that same reduced footprint.


My biggest peeve with Kyoto is that it doesn't actually require any reduction in greenhouse gas emmissions since big emmitters (China, U.S., etc.) can simply offset their emmissions by purchasing credits from undeveloped countries that aren't likely to be big emmitters any time in the foreseeable future.

If I didn't have so much faith in the UN and the world diplomatic community, I would swear that Kyoto is really just a scheme to embarrass the U.S. and Europe into transferring wealth to Africa and Latin America under the guise of buying carbon credits.

NJ got rid of their open market emissions offset program in 2003 for similar reasons.

You are a COB! Don't you realize that we can vote down new power plants, but are entitled to our electrical convenieneces (like the one I'm typing on), and we should do away with all oil production and refining, but are entitled to drive our 16MPG Tahoe to work and back, alone? Why should we not also be able to Help the Environment by purchasing warm, fuzzy "offsets" and yet still be entitled to use (and waste) as we wish!

Geez, next thing you know you'll be talking about some heretical concept like Personal Responsibility! What are you, Un-American?

;-) Great post, btw.

How about the fact that Gore is buying these "offsets" from...himself?

Or at least a company, he helped found. Al Gore buys his carbon offsets through Generation Investment Management, a company he co-founded.

Gore helped found Generation Investment Management, through which he and others pay for offsets. The firm invests the money in solar, wind and other projects that reduce energy consumption around the globe...

It gets better:

As co-founder and chairman of the firm Gore presumably draws an income or will make money as its investments prosper. In other words, he “buys” his “carbon offsets” from himself, through a transaction designed to boost his own investments and return a profit to himself. To be blunt, Gore doesn’t buy “carbon offsets” through Generation Investment Management - he buys stocks.


Original story;


After seeing the increasingly corpulent former VP, I have to ask:

Does he eat his carbon offsets?

It would explain a great deal.

Oooooooh Mal!

You done did it now!

You just called Gore "fat."

That's what Anne Coulter did, so that makes you "just as bad as Anne Coulter," because we all know that Liberals never make fun of other folk's appearances.


Whooops! Maybe I mis-spoke. Didn't some Liberals poke fun at Greta van Sustern's "lopsided face," before they were told she had Bell's Palsy.

Haven't opponents been lampooning Limbaugh over his girth since he first started on the radio???

How can it be OK for one side, and not the other???

Really, that's an honest question.

Kyoto is based on Junk Science.

Ignore it.

How can it be OK for one side, and not the other???
Really, that's an honest question. - JMK

Maybe it’s not “right” or “wrong” for either side. Honestly I could care less about the fat jokes on Gore or Limbaugh or anyone else. What bothers me is when either side uses those insults as a deflection to avoid discussing a legitimate issue.

I think the mockery is hilarious, and part of a long tradition. We’ve always lampooned our politicians. Hell since they don’t listen to what the people want they may as well provide the people with a steady source of entertainment.

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