Carbon offsets: More than 21st century indulgences

There is a fair amount of press these days about carbon offsets (e.g. this NYT story, and this blog from Grist Magazine). Seems like a typically North American strategy: When faced with a crisis, buy something. For a set price, you can pay for a certificate that shows that somewhere in the world, somehow, someone is reducing greenhouse gas pollution on your behalf, to make up for what you produce directly and indirectly by using electricity, driving your car, and purchasing consumer products. You can invest in the right-sized carbon offset and—abracadabra—claim to be carbon-neutral.

Sounds a lot like an old-fashioned indulgence, doesn’t it? What would Martin Luther do with the notion of a carbon offset? Can you pay your way out of punishment for sins by purchasing the stored-up merits of others?

Lots of folks probably think of carbon offsets like indulgences. Once convinced of the reality of human impact on global warming, many people want to know what they can do—how can they gain clean hands, given the terrible impacts of global warming on the global poor—without the sacrifice of altering their consumerist lifestyles. Carbon offsets look like a way to ease the guilt of driving a car or flying in a plane.

In reality, carbon offsets are part of a series of strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Everyone has a responsibility for reducing their emissions on their own. Energy economist Charles Komanoff reckons that without a lot of effort any North American household above the poverty line could cut its energy consumption by 25 percent in six months and save money in the process.

After reducing what we can as promptly as we can, carbon offsets are a way of generating investment dollars for renewable energy, energy efficiency and reforestation projects that reduce—or soak up—greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere. We are part of a matrix, and not everyone can immediately give up their car, cancel their electrical service and live in a yurt. Voluntary carbon offsets are not cheap, and they are a part of accepting personal responsibility for the pollution we generate.

A better solution, in the long run, though, is to make the pollution costs of what we buy a part of the purchase price. No one could dodge responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions if we had a rational federal policy that guarantees the polluter pays.

Until the time that North Americans, through their elected representatives, decide to take collective responsibility for the global warming side-effects of our lifestyle choices, the only options available are voluntary ones, including reducing our consumption and investing in carbon offsets. Not everyone will purchase offsets, but if even a substantial minority does, we can generate a powerful signal to the markets that there is money to be made in producing the economic good of pollution reduction.

In the Evangelical Climate Initiative Campaign, we decided to offer a carbon offset in partnership with the highly regarded—but only after asking participants to reduce what they can. At, interested folks learn about what they can do personally to reduce their carbon impact while waiting for federal action. Some may feel they have been granted an indulgence, but most recognize they are merely making a contribution to finding solutions

There’s a famous—perhaps apocryphal—story about a woman who complained to preacher Dwight L. Moody that she didn’t care for his style of evangelism. He replied, "I agree with you. I don’t like the way I do it either. Tell me, how do you do it?" To which she admitted, "I don’t do it." Moody then replied, "Then I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it.”

I think it’s the same with carbon offsets. A vocal set of nay-sayers doesn’t like an imperfect, partial solution. Their objections are valid if the purchase of offsets creates a smug, self-satisfied citizenry that fails to advocate climate protection legislation. But I don’t think it does. I think those who invest in offsets are more vocal and better informed about global warming and, in general, they are acting responsibly in reducing their own carbon emissions. They have just chosen to put their money where their mouth is.

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