Friday, March 18, 2011

offsets are indulgences

What hurts my head about offsets is not that they are a get-out-of-jail-for-free card (let's just keep on consuming but ease our conscience), but that you need to know that what you are spending your money on would not have been done otherwise - that methane would not have been used to generate electricity from that waste dump, or that tree would not have been planted, without my expenditure on the offset. That is really hard to assess. We are talking about a counterfactual future, what would have happened if hadn't contributed that money, and who can really answer that.

The carbon we release in driving to the beach is actual but the carbon we save is more notional. If you are subsidizing a company that gives out free energy efficient light globes - how much does that actually save is an actuarial exercise in estimation. One is happening now but the savings are projected to happen in the future.

But what if you are paying somebody not to do something in the future, like not cut down that tree. Now that's really notional. Farmers may be asking for credits for trees that they could have cut down but don't actually have any plans to.

To the cynical offsets could be seen to just be subsidizing normal activities that would have occurred in the normal course of events - and therefore increasing profits.

Offets are also used to excuse the unsustainable growth in industries say like travel that emit a lot of carbon.

There also the issue of discount rates for carbon savings which I'll deal with in another blog.

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