In Defense of Offsets

Climate Forests Investments Dec 4, 2009
Caroline Ott

A flurry of high-profile entities have given up on carbon-neutral flying, and several media reports say carbon offsets do more to ease guilt than to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, especially when applied to air travel.   Our Caroline Ott begs to differ, and answers three common arguments she says are simply not based in fact.

4 December 2009 | “Paying more for flights eases guilt, not emissions.” This catchy title of a recent New York Times article reflects the stance of many organizations that recently decided to scrap programs offering carbon offsets for travel-related emissions. Responsible Travel, Yahoo, and the US House of Representatives are just a few groups that have terminated offset-purchase programs this year, determining that their money was better spent on in-house reduction efforts.

Fair enough. But the decision of just three companies does not mean that we should abandon offset programs altogether. Nevertheless, the Times article supports precisely this type of action. The article presents opinions and statements that outright contradict the science and research surrounding the voluntary carbon markets. Take a look at these quotes:

“Responsible Travel suggests that offsetting may encourage some people to travel and consume more.”

While this situation may seem plausible, it makes the giant assumption that before offsetting became a viable option for eco-friendly flyers, this population actually refrained from travel in order to reduce their carbon footprints. In other words, many individuals and corporations opted out of emissions-generating activities even before the whole “carbon neutral” phenomenon hit the mainstream media. Call me a skeptic, but I find this hard to believe.

“It has proved difficult to monitor or quantify the emissions-reducing potential of the thousands of green projects financed by customers’ payments, and there are no industry wide standards.”

The statement that no standards exist for carbon offsets is simply false. As documented in Ecosystem Marketplace’s State of the Voluntary Carbon Markets 2009, a total of 17 standards have been developed worldwide for the exact purpose of monitoring and quantifying the emissions reductions from green projects.

“Paul Dickinson, chief executive of the Carbon Disclosure Project said that offsetting the emissions of a flight from London to New York would probably require an extra fee of $200 to $300.”

It is hard to imagine how Mr. Dickinson arrived at this price range. By multiplying The World Institute’s air travel emissions factor (0.11 kg/km) by the length of the flight (5580 km) by Ecosystem Marketplace’s average retail offset price ($8.90/tCO2e), this offset should cost around $5.50. True, the EM and WRI figures are estimates, but one of these numbers would have to be off by a factor of 40 in order for Mr. Dickinson’s offset to fall in the $200 to $300 range.

So, before you take offsets out with the trash, be sure to keep in mind what The Times article fails to mention. Carbon offsets are a luxury good, and in this economy, it should be no surprise that the rate of individual purchases as well as corporate buy-in has declined dramatically. This downturn, however, should in no way be tied to the economic and environmental potential of this valuable market tool.

This story originally appeared on the Eko-Eco Blog, where you can view it in its entirety and post comments.

Caroline Ott is a Research Associate for the Carbon and Water Programs at Ecosystem Marketplace.

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