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Carbon Copies: Are All Offset Programs Created Equal?
by Non-Toxic News
It's with much relief that we note that the climate crisis has been topping the news lately. From the Nobel prize to the latest Congressional energy bill, global warming is at last on everyone's mind along with questions about what each of us can do to stop it. For many, one promising solution seems to be carbon offsets, which compensate for the carbon dioxide people produce by preventing or absorbing emissions elsewhere. But do such programs work and can you trust them?
Carbon offsets are rapidly becoming the next Big Green Thing around the world, and it's easy to see their appeal. For a relatively small price, they promise to "zero out" any emissions of the key global warming gas carbon dioxide (CO2) that we create by keeping an equal amount out of the atmosphere via tree plantings, renewable energy generation, and other projects that trap carbon or don't produce it in the first place. When such a balance is achieved, offset subscribers and their lifestyles become "carbon neutral."
In the simplest terms, a carbon offset plan works like this: Say, for example, that in driving to and from work each day your car emits a ton of CO2 a year. To negate this CO2, you join a carbon offset program which charges you $200 per year to plant an acre of trees which will absorb a ton of CO2 from the air thereby negating the climate impact of your commute's pollution to make your ride carbon neutral.
It's a reasonable idea, but we should state up front that as a company we're not in favor of carbon offsets. It's our view that while these programs certainly have some benefits, they don't address the serious top-to-bottom systemic change that's needed where energy and emissions are concerned. Instead, they simply grant a certain amount of guilt-free permission for their subscribers to continue to produce CO2 at a time when everyone everywhere needs to stop producing this gas when and wherever possible in order to avert a serious climate meltdown.
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We think that in a rapidly warming world a molecule of CO2 in the atmosphere is a molecule of CO2 in the atmosphere. The fact that it may have been compensated for elsewhere does not impact the contribution to climate change that that original molecule will make. That another molecule has been prevented from being released elsewhere via a carbon offset program only makes the overall situation less worse rather than making it better. And better is what we need. Thus while we very much support the types of programs that carbon offset subscribers contribute to, we don't favor a system that uses these programs as a way to continue business as usual somewhere else.
At best, we think carbon offset programs are a stop-gap solution, a bridge we can use to start ameliorating our impacts immediately while we engineer a new system in which clean technologies and energy efficiencies combine to keep the lights on without environmental damage. We see them as a temporary fix not a permanent solution. Still, carbon offset programs do offer some short term value. They contribute to a lowering of total global CO2 emissions, provide a personal starting point on the road to a zero carbon world, and help finance needed projects that will be part of our new energy future. As long, that is, as we pick the right ones to subscribe to.
Because not all carbon offset programs are created equal. The market remains unregulated and there are lots of promises being made that aren't always being kept. The result is a mine-field for well-intentioned consumers who may not be creating the positive impacts they're paying for. Earlier this year, an investigation into carbon offsets by the Financial Times found a fledgling industry beset by problems, including:
• Widespread instances of people and organizations buying worthless credits that don't yield any reductions in carbon emissions.
Clearly this is a market experiencing some growing pains and until regulators step in to institute some rules and create an honest playing field its caveat emptor. If you're considering offsetting your carbon emissions, here are some questions to ask before you buy:
For a complete consumers guide to carbon offsets, including invaluable ratings of the leading plans, visit Clean Air Cool Planet at http://www.cleanair-coolplanet.org/. For additional perspective on why carbon offsets aren't the solution we need, read The Carbon Neutral Myth from Carbon Trade Watch it on the web here.
(Even within the virtual offices of Green Living the subject of carbon offsets is controversial. "They don't solve the problem, they just move it around," says one faction. "But they're a step in the right direction," says the other. This article gives a balanced presentation. It was published originally in the Non-Toxic News, the free monthly eNewsletter of Seventh Generation. Subscribe at SeventhGeneration.com)
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