Friday, March 28, 2014

Why I Offset, Part II

Recently, I discussed why I purchase carbon offsets and why I believe they are not just sufficiently effective but highly so. Today, I would like to address what I perceive as the primary counter argument, which is that by purchasing offsets, one may feel they have paid for their “indulgences” and is therefore free to pollute.

First, the word “indulgence” is obviously a loaded term, and it is not particularly relevant anyway, as while most pollution (particular carbon) is completely fungible, while most sins are not. Nature doesn’t give a whit if I add a ton of CO2 here today and remove one there tomorrow. In contrast, I don’t get a free pass to steal from someone because I happened to return someone else’s lost purse. The idea that one can pay for immoral behavior with moral behavior is silly; the idea that you can clean up your messes is not. While there may be some borderline cases, this isn’t one of them, as the fungibility of carbon emissions is complete.

The crux of the matter, however, is the question as to what effects have on the purchaser’s emissions. One could argue that this is actually irrelevant, if the purchaser is honestly offsetting all their emissions. But even ignoring that point, do emissions actually increase for a typical purchaser? At least in my case, I strongly doubt it and in fact expect the reverse is true. There are in fact four mechanisms by which my emissions decrease when I purchase offsets:

1: The $100-200 I spend on offsets annually is $100-200 less I have to spend on anything else. Since there are few things I possibly could spend the money on that didn’t involve emissions, my emissions are almost certainly reduced. This represents a couple tenths of a percent of my income and likely decreases my total emissions by a similar amount.

2: Supply and demand. Knowing I have to purchase offsets causes me to perceive a higher price for any carbon-intensive activity and thus discourages me marginally from doing it

3: Guilt. In fact, this is so strong that just about every offset purchase I have ever made has been coupled with either donations to environmental organizations or volunteering with them

4: Direct action. Similar to above, my offset purchases usually spur me to act directly to reduce my emissions. They are like a big alarm clock that reminds me to check my tire pressure, fix that leaky window, or finally ditch that old, inefficient appliance.

Environmentalists who reject offsets do so essentially entirely two claims – that offsets don’t work, which I addressed last time, and that they cause the purchaser’s emissions to rise. Yet for the latter to be the case, the logic of indulgence – which just about anyone purchasing offsets would reject on principle – has to trump all four of the emission-decreasing effects listed above, two of which are rooted in very basic economic principles. Not only do I find this implausible, I am utterly certain in my own case that the balance lies heavily in the other direction, and that my offset purchases cause my emissions to drop substantially. Additionally, as I noted earlier, this is all likely irrelevant anyway because I am more-than-honestly offsetting all my emissions in the first place.

It goes even further than this. Even if one was only successfully offsetting a fraction of one’s emissions, the environment would likely come out ahead. If someone was emitting 10 tons a year before offsets, but post-offset emits 12 and offsets 8, there is still a net 60% reduction in carbon. I would hazard a guess that offset purchasers whose emissions increase by more than their successful offset purchases are close to non-existent. For example, if a typical purchaser successfully offsets half their emissions (failing in the other half due to either underestimating their emissions that need to offset, or buying offsets of insufficient quality), then their emissions would have to double in order to have a net negative impact. Barring a huge salary increase, a typical person would have to go out of their way to double their emissions, literally finding ways to burn fossil fuels with most of their spare cash. No one is going to do that. Even if there is a bump in people's emissions, which I doubt, it is unlikely to be anything more than a modest 10-20%, which in turn is almost certainly less than what they are offsetting. I simply see no plausible route for offset purchases to increase emissions.