I have been a regular purchaser of carbon offsets for the last eight years or so, specifically from TerraPass, though they are not the only acceptable provider. I do this because I cannot find it morally acceptable to leave the world in a worse condition than I found it. It is my responsibility to clean up the messes I make, even if that costs me a hundred bucks a year or so.
I was quite dismayed, however, to read prominent science writer Eric Holthaus's article in Slate earlier this week, where he discussed how, instead of flying like a rational person, he road a bus from Madison to Atlanta in order to attend an academic meeting, wasting essentially two days of his valuable time, all to save an estimated emissions of 1200 lbs of carbon dioxide. This can be offset via TerrPass for under ten dollars. Yep, Eric wasted two days of his time rather than spend ten bucks. Why? Because, to quote Eric, "I don’t believe in offsets". He then links to a debate about the quality of offsets that offers no conclusion, nor is particularly relevant anyway is it is a discussion about the UN's Clean Development Mechanism and related international treaties, not the small individual market. But even in the former case of the slow treaty process, independent audits have not been bad, finding that over 90% of offsets are real and "additional" - in other words, are not something that would have have happened anyway. Oddly, famous climate blogger Joe Romm cites the same article as evidence against offsets, linking it with a highly misleading lede. I normally like Joe, but on that day he let his hatred of "rip-offsets" as he calls them get the better of him.
In the case of private organizations, however, there is even less reason to doubt their work. TerraPass, with which I am most familiar, is completely transparent about its present and futures projects, providing long comment periods before accepting them, and routine audits by both TerraPass staff and independent auditors to ensure that emission reductions are being measured properly. Their business critically depends on transparency and they provide it in spades.
Which brings me back to Holthaus. Despite his herculean and largely pointless efforts, he still emitted over 300 lbs of carbon for the transportation portion trip. Since he didn't offset them, obviously his total was +300 lbs for the transportation segment of the trip. Now let's compare that to my upcoming trip to Australia, which TerraPass realistically estimates at 4600 lbs of carbon. In response to this, I will purchase 6000 lbs of offsets for less than $40. I always over-purchase a bit precisely because I worry that TerraPass (or any provider) is not perfect, and I want to keep sure I am in the right side of things. Even if you assume that TerraPass is only 80% effective, which is lower than there is any reason to believe, I would still be -200 lbs for the trip, 500 lbs less than Holthaus for our respective trips.
In my opinion, folks like Holthaus and Romm are letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, and in doing so, causing a lot of harm. It is simply too painful, in our world designed with high environmental impact infrastructure and economic systems, to live a very low impact lifestyle. Radicals aside, people won't do it. Even crusaders like Holthaus and Romm fall far short of perfection. However, a lot of people can be convinced to pay a bit of money to offset the messes they make, and a few dollars can be highly beneficial here. Claiming that offsets are not perfect enough or pure enough or direct enough will certainly push people away from buying them. However, imagining that these people Eric and Joe pushed away from buying them will then magically decide to drastically and directly reduce their environmental impact instead is wishful thinking.
For me, it is pretty simple. I am pretty low impact (living in Japan will do that to you), and I offset about 120% of the rest, just to be safe. Odds are I am pretty close to carbon neutral, give or take a few percent. Folks like Holthaus, in contrast, have no hope but to be substantially carbon positive given their current courses of actions. Worse yet, they are convincing other people to follow their lead in the wrong direction.
Post-script: For the record, I do not offset work-related activity. I offset what I consume, not what I produce. To do both would be to double-count. Also note that my upcoming set of flights is only the ninth set of my life that was not business-related. I am certainly not a million miler.