Indulging In Carbon

09 March 2007
The Los Angeles Times set off a small firestorm in California last week when it disclosed that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., spent what appeared to be an inordinate amount of time flying around in private jets—an activity that boosts greenhouse gases far more than if they had been flying commercial. To be fair, Feinstein and especially Schwarzenegger have promoted policies designed to reduce global warming emissions and deserve credit for their leadership. But some pundits immediately jumped on the discrepancy between public admonition and private behavior to brand the politicians hypocrites. Feinstein’s rejoinder was that she was buying what are called “carbon offsets” to compensate for the damage she was causing. Schwarzenegger’s spokesman said he would do the same. Indeed, buying “carbon offsets” is becoming all the rage. The producers of the recent Academy Awards worked with my friends at NRDC to offset the emissions from the recent ceremonies. (Of course, as one television news camera man told me last week, many of the stars immediately retreated to the comfort of their heated swimming pools.) And from Hollywood and Vine to Main Street, carbon offsets are becoming trendy among the socially conscious: Give an offset as a birthday gift to the spouse—then drive off to dinner in the gas-guzzling SUV feeling virtuous. A casual observer might be excused for drawing the analogy between this sort of purchase and the medieval Catholic Church practice of selling indulgences to sinners—an activity that prompted Martin Luther’s rebellion and the start of the Protestant Reformation. Doling out these offsets like medieval friars is at least one for-profit company and several non-profit organizations. For example, the for-profit TerraPass tells me that for $29.95, I could more than reduce the 3,522 pounds of carbon dioxide produced by my Toyota Prius—plus I’d get a nifty window decal and bumper sticker. (If I were driving one of Schwarzenegger’s Hummers, I’d have to buy the $49.95 indulgence—I mean, TerraPass.) At least some of the collected money would go towards efforts to expand wind energy, thereby reducing the need for carbon dioxide-producing coal burning, or reducing farm-related methane emissions. By comparison, the non-profit Carbon Fund says that for a mere $14.97 donation, I could receive a tag that certifies that I’ve been as virtuous as if I had given $29.95 to the for-profit company. Money donated towards this relative bargain plan can go towards energy efficiency, renewable energy or tree planting. I don’t mean to sound too flippant about these and similar enterprises. Carbon offsets clearly can produce some positive results. Indeed, a recent collaborative effort between the Portland, Oregon-based Climate Trust and several power companies could prompt a record voluntary reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and also help pave the way for future mandatory global warming limits. And perhaps it should be noted that money from some of the medieval indulgences went towards Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. However, at least one international non-profit organization has raised significant concerns that carbon offsets could divert public attention away from the real need for government action to reduce global warming pollution. The Netherlands-based Carbon Trade Watch warned in a recent report that
From flights, to four-wheel drives, to [gasoline], carbon offsets provide a false legitimacy to some of the most inherently unsustainable products and services on the market. What’s more, the costs of this purchasable legitimacy are often largely shunted onto the consumer, who effectively ends up paying for the greenwash. These companies also benefit because offset schemes place more of the focus on the consumers’ responsibility for climate change—at the expense of examining the larger, systemic changes that we need to bring about in our industries and economies.
At the very least, we ought to recognize that consumer-based carbon offsets aren’t going to be enough to address the very real problem of global warming. After all, the U.S. emits more than 7 billion tons of greenhouse gases each year—and we need to reduce those emissions, not just offset increases. As for Feinstein and Schwarzenegger, let’s appreciate that they’ve shown some policy leadership, but also wish that they provided slightly better role models for the rest of us. Frank O'Donnell is president of Clean Air Watch, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization aimed at educating the public about clean air and the need for an effective Clean Air Act. Published by Tom Paine