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
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
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 nonprofit 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 nonprofit 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 nonprofit 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.
© 2007 TomPaine.com