Friday, May 4, 2007

posted by Sarah Krasley @ 6:11 PM

It's hard to avoid the controversy surrounding carbon offsets these days. Most of the arguments I've read liken buying carbon offsets from carbon offset retailers to buying indulgences from the Catholic church--you buy carbon offsets because your polluting activities (like driving or taking commercial plane trips) have caused greenhouse gas emissions to be released. Similarly, people bought indulgences from the Catholic church with the promise that their purchase would absolve their sins. Conceptually, I can see why that parallel is drawn in the media time and time and time again (yawn!)....until you take it to the next step.

From what I remember from my "blue ribbon" Catholic high school education, the Catholic church acknowledges the act of selling indulgences as a not-so-great part of the Church's history. The scrilla in town square indulgence boxes went largely into church officials' pockets and more importantly, the effects felt by the families of the sinners (like how a cheating parent's infidelity will seriously bum out a whole family for a long time) didn't go away. How could a behavioral reformation within an individual occur if a donation was all it took to put them back in good standing with God? Did those that sinned attend the new churches and reform, lessening the effects that their possible future sinning activities caused? Were the new churches built specifically because the Catholic church saw an upward redemption demand curve in the brand new crop of sinners they saw putting hard-earned coins in the indulgence box? Most importantly, did the money from the indulgences pay for the new churches? Too bad additionality tests weren't in place back then!

A new "offset provider" has emerged which gave me a good laugh and gave my boyfriend a start when he saw me looking at the website while researching this piece. Visit and as always make sure to read the small print.

I applaud Cheat Neutral's efforts to illustrate their ideas about the conundrums of carbon offsetting and bring levity to the whole situation--however, their "model" is flawed. C'mon, were so close!

My problems with the parallels they draw are as follows: The "project" couples are happy and monogamous. I can tell you from being in a happy monogamous relationship for quite some time: since I met my boyfriend, I have never been tempted to cheat on him. The fact that I am making that statement in a public forum, should attest to this. My monogamy is operating as life as usual. I'm not exerting any additional effort to remain monogamous. Throughout the entire life of our relationship, there have been no temptations to cheat.

From what I gather from the Cheat Neutral website--their project couples are the same as me. No additional effort is taking place for the couples to remain monogamous. I'm not getting any details of opportunities where the project couples might have succumbed to infidelity. If I saw something like "Suzie has seen every Jude Law movie ever made and she has pictures of him hung all over her cubicle. One night, a very intoxicated Suzie was in a pub all alone in a very short skirt. Lilly Allen was playing and Jude Law asked her to go on a moonlit cruise and neck on the deck of his private yacht. Through her alcohol-induced haze, Suzie's libido screamed 'Yes,' but her husband Saul's sweet, fat face popped into her mind and she declined Jude's offer." If I saw transparent details like that --OK-- legitimate offset project (under the context of Cheat Neutral). Because I'm a somewhat cautious consumer, I may also look for a third party endorsement: Jude Law's publicist; an eye witness at the pub; a co-worker who has heard Suzie go on about how sexy Jude Law is, etc.

Here's where the flaw in parallelling these two offset types comes in: most major carbon offset retailers will give you lots of details about the project where the offset originated. On a carbon offset retailer's website, you'll learn about what type of project the offset came from, who certified the project, and how the creation of the project wouldn't have occurred if not for consumers who purchased carbon offsets in response to the greenhouse gas emissions associated with driving their cars, taking plane trips, etc. Consumers have the opportunity to find out about the certifier of the project and look at the criteria they use to judge the validity of carbon offset projects. Bottom line: a good carbon offset is real reduction in greenhouse gases and the project it came from came about because of concerned consumers who wanted to clean up after themselves--they are not business as usual projects.

While I don't liken anyone to divinity, I've had the good fortune to meet many of the major carbon offset retailers in person. I've also had the good fortune to meet a couple of the people who think carbon offsets are bogus. With the disclaimer that I am known for having a damn fine judge of character, I must say that without exception or hesitation, every blessed carbon offset retailer I've met impressed me by the fact that they are in business for the right reasons. They are not dripping with jewels and expensive cologne--they are normal people who are selling a product to help people who can't live net-zero emissions lives without the help of an offset here or there. They realize--as should you and I --that it's pretty damn difficult to not emit greenhouse gases in your daily life. Without the help of carbon offsets, it is currently impossible to take a commercial airline flight without emitting greenhouse gases. Without owning your own home and living off the energy grid, it is impossible to have the electricity that powers your home result in no greenhouse gas emissions without purchasing offsets or renewable energy certificates. That's why concerned consumers and businesses who have already done energy efficiency improvements buy renewable energy certificates and carbon offsets to bring them up to net-zero emissions. Some people can't afford an electric hybrid when they choose a car they need to get to and from their job--enter in carbon offsets. Get my point??

Everywhere I've looked, environmental groups advocate modifying your lifestyle as the first step. Even most of those that think carbon offsets are bogus agree about this. However, even if you reduce your greenhouse gas emissions through behavior changes like: being mindful of your electricity and heating levels, washing your clothes in cold water in lieu of hot water, carpooling and taking public transportation, switching to compact flourescent lightbulbs, and driving hybrids--I hate to break it to you, but it's a good chance that there are still greenhouse gas emissions heading upstairs.

As the controversy about carbon offsets continues, keep that in mind. If you want to make a point by walking your talk and dealing with your contributions to climate change, do you want to jam it at 5 or at 10? In this case, please kiss and tell.

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