white plane on the sky

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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 – substantial numbers of people start living a good life without emitting tons and tons of GHGs.

We need some conspicuous non-consumption right now in order to change 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.

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

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 six hour flights over the six 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.

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 three out of four 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.