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Earth Matters

Earth Matters: What to Know About Carbon Offsets

by Karl S. Coplan

Earth Matters focuses on conservation, sustainability, recycling and healthy living. 

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It was about a decade ago that carbon offsets became a “thing.” Travelers at San Francisco International Airport could step up to a kiosk and buy carbon offsets to balance out that greenhouse gas-spewing flight. (How does 1,000 pounds of CO2 on an LA-to-Chicago trip sound?) 

The idea of an offset is that you can cancel out the harmful effect of your emissions by supporting a project that will eliminate an equivalent amount of emissions elsewhere in the world. But offsets pose practical and moral problems: If harmful pollution is wrong, can you really right that wrong by paying someone else not to pollute?

We asked environmental law professor Karl S. Coplan, who hews to a strict “carbon budget,” to share his Live! Sustainably! Now! blog on carbon offsets with Earth Matters this week. — Editor

I’ll confess up front that I am not a fan of offsets. Addressing climate change will require people in the developed world to live with a smaller carbon footprint. We need to redefine the Western ideal of the “good life” to substitute a vision with less energy consumption. That will only happen when culture changes–i.e., substantial numbers of people start living a good life without emitting tons and tons of greenhouse gases (GHG).

We need some conspicuous non-consumption right now in order for our culture to accept a lower carbon energy economy. And offsets get in the way of that happening, since people maintain their visibly big footprint lives while paying someone else somewhere else to pretty much invisibly reduce their carbon emissions.

The premise of carbon offsets is that you are paying someone somewhere to either reduce their GHG emissions, or capture and sequester GHG emissions, equal to the emissions from whatever you are doing–usually a fairly conspicuous form of GHG emissions like an airplane flight. Since your emissions have been “offset” by this net reduction elsewhere, for climate purposes, you have eliminated the effect of your own emissions and you can fly free of climate responsibility.

On a secondary level, paying for carbon offsets also has the climate protective effect of making our emissions cost more, which should make us cause less of them. We should only engage in GHG emitting activity that is really worth it. Offsets should work like a carbon tax, then. But most carbon offsets right now are so cheap (on the order of $10 per ton) as to be practically meaningless. No one avoids a transcontinental round trip because the ticket price went up $10.

When you purchase carbon offsets, you are funding a project that reduces greenhouse-gas emissions elsewhere by, for example, increasing energy efficiency, developing renewable energy, restoring forests, or sequestering carbon in soil.

                                                — Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth, 2006

al gore carbon offsets

Vice President Al Gore, preaching to the climate change choir since before his landmark 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth.

So for a carbon offset to be valid, then, it seems to me they should meet at least 3 of the following 4 principles:

  1. They must be “real” (that is, meets the conventional offset criteria of being verifiable, enforceable, and additional).
  2. They should achieve the offset of your carbon emissions within 12 months of when your emissions occur. Climate impacts start immediately when the emissions occur and will become critical in a matter of just a few decades–so offsets far in the future really aren’t offsets.
  3. They should cost no less than the social cost of carbon—currently about $50 per ton
  4. They should provide economic benefits to communities that will suffer the greatest harms from climate change.

Number 1 is self evident, and is the baseline for all organizations certifying offsets.

Number 2 is key for me. Climate change is happening now, and our emissions today add irrevocably to the severity of climate impacts. Offsetting your 6 hour flights over the 6 decades it takes a tree to sequester your emissions is not really an offset. According to the IPCC SR15 report, we have about 12 years to ramp down global GHG emissions by roughly 50% if we are going to meet the 1.5 degree C goal of the Paris Accords. You are not offsetting, much less ramping down, your emissions, if the offsets take longer than that. In addition, the enforceability and additionality of offsets gets to be very speculative when we are talking decades in the future. For the globe to meet a net zero emissions  target by 2050, pretty much everything now being sold as a low-hanging offset is going to have to be required by law. And don’t count on that forest conservation easement being enforceable in 2060 after some climate-related political upheavals have occurred. Some methane capture offsets might meet this standard. Few offsetting guidance documents look at the timing of the offsets, but they should. This one does.

jet planes jfk

Jets lined up at JFK. Photo: Dennis Jarvis via Wikimedia.

Number 3 is essential if your offset is going to perform the economic function of limiting your emissions to those that are really “worth it.” It works like a pigouvian tax that way.  If you aren’t willing to pay up for the amount of harm your flight will cause to climate-disrupted communities, then the world would be better off if you stayed home.

But a social cost-based carbon tax is globally regressive. The world’s poor suffer the harms while the wealthier nations collect and redistribute the tax to their relatively wealthy citizens. So number 4 is a necessary element to make sure that the people being harmed by your emissions actually receive some compensation for that harm. The Gold Standards offset certifications includes consideration of sustainable development goals.

If you can meet 3 out of 4 of these principles, offsetting is at least defensible. But if you can’t meet number 2 (roughly contemporaneous offsetting), then you are not really avoiding the climate harm of your flight. You are just, through a combination of 3 and 4, paying compensation to the people who are harmed by your flight.

And since I believe that monetary compensation for climate harms can never really make up for the community dislocation, starvation, and personal suffering caused by climate change, I prefer not to rely on offsets at all in my own carbon accounting.

Karl S. Coplan

By his own account: “Tree-hugging nature lover, cross-country skier, and sailor. Environmental law teacher and Co-Director of the Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic since 1994. Waterkeeper Alliance board member.” Photo courtesy Karl S. Coplan

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