Carbon Offsets: Paying off Unsustainable
Life Styles or Investing in Sustainability?
In October 1980, a couple of years
after I started Costa
Rica Expeditions, a reporter from the Tico
Times, Costa Rica's English language newspaper wrote an article
about my fledgling enterprise.
Almost 20 years later, researching her book on eco-tourism, Ecotourism
and Sustainable Development, Martha Honey found my long forgotten
answer to a question about what made my vison of tourism different, "Tourism
should contribute to, rather than exploit (the land)...It should
be active rather than passive, emphasizing cultural exchange rather
than mere sightseeing." Honey called them "pioneering words." Almost
30 years later, having watched eco-tourism fads come and go, I can't
decide whether to be proud, or wish I had kept my big mouth shot.
A SEDUCTIVE STRATEGY
The new hot fad in sustainable
travel these days is paying offsets for our carbon
footprint. That is, to compensate for the amount our lifestyles
contribute to the catastrophic largely man made changes that are
taking place in the earth's climate we pay money that is supossedly
used to change things back.
As far as I can figure
out, the way it is supposed to work is that we add up all the carbon
our vacation spews into the atmosphere. Then using math way beyond
the power of mere mortals to understand, experts calculate the amount
of money that it would take to remove the carbon that we have put
in. We then fork over this money to carbon offset brokers, and, after
covering their overhead and administrative expenses, they spend the
money on sequestering carbon by natural means, or on developing renewable
energy technologies that will, they claim, result in a smaller carbon
footprint from the same activities in the future.
It is a brilliantly seductive strategy. With a small manageable
financial sacrifice we "offset" (or should it be buy off) our life
styles. Any scheme that allows sustainability gurus to guiltlessly
fly around in private jets and contaminate the atmosphere much more
than the ordinary citizen has got to be worthy of our respect.
fixes for potential catastrophes is nothing new. When I was a teenager,
it was nuclear holocaust. The Russians had just gotten the hydrogen
bomb. Since the US had just snuffed 250,000 Japs in Hiroshima and
Nagasaki, everyone assumed that we were next. In school the response
that we were given were air raid drills in which we were made to
get down beneath our desks and put our heads between our legs. After
a while they must have figured that we needed to do more to protect
ourselves against a bomb that was capable of making whole islands
disappear in the South Pacific, so they told us to turn away from
the windows. That was when I must have made some typically wise-ass
remark. I can't remember what I said, but I can remember being sent
to the principal's office and accused of being a communist. I feel
now exactly the way I feel then.
As much as I would love
to be able to pay for offsets and continue merrily on with my highly
privileged and satisfying life, I can't help but think that paying
carbon offsets as an answer to climate change is something like taking
aspirin for cancer that has very possibly metastasized. It might
be comforting to look at it as a good start. It does temporarily
ease the pain and you do feel like you are doing something about
it, but, if it distracts you from getting the chemo or the radiation
that might really help in the long run, it is, to be charitable,
a short sighted strategy.
When I asked a scientist
friend of mine who is one of the pioneers in climate change research
what he thought of offsets, he put it very succinctly, "The science
is doubtful and the social policy is worse."
Let's start with the social policy. No matter how hard you spin
it, you don't get around the fact that essentially offsets are rich
people paying so that they can maintain their unsustainable life
I find it particularly
unfortunate that in the Travel Industry we have been especially self-deprecating
by singling out the carbon footprint of travel to be offset.
Conferences brag about being carbon
neutral by paying offsets by all the carbon generated by the
event. Travelers are encouraged to pay to offset carbon generated
by their vacations. It is as if we believed that carbon produced
by travel melts more glaciers than the carbon that we all generate
in the rest of our lives.
If our life styles are as unsustainable as the practice of offsets
suggests, it seems to me that we need to change our life styles rather
than paying to get ourselves off the hook. But if we are going to
buy offsets, we should at least buy them for our entire carbon footprint,
not just pick on travel.
Finally even a cursory
look at the literature makes it pretty clear that either offsets
do not have the slightest potential to make a dent in the problem,
or the threat of climate change is highly exaggerated. Hope for this
second possibility is getting slimmer every day.
When pressed offset
supporters admit that offsets per se are not effective. Then they
go on to defend offsets as the solution of last resort. After you
have done everything possible to reduce your greenhouse gas admissions,
they suggest, if you absolutely have to engage in polluting activities,
it is better than nothing to pay some money that will used to alleviate
the theory. A quick perusal at the ecommerce sites dedicated to selling
offsets shows that in almost all of the idea of reducing emissions
it appears at all is dwarfed aggressive promoting of the sale of
You can balance it out. Undoing your contribution to global warming
is easier than you think. Gaia Absolution (I made up this name) is
simple, affordable and verified. Be part of the solution.
Goes the pitch on one
of the more prominent and splashy sites. This same site also offered
a volume discount of as much as 28% on the cost for mile car offsets.
The more you drive the less you pay per mile. When I pointed this
out, the CEO of the company that owns the site said it was due to
a "rounding error," and promised that it would be corrected immediatley.
All the sites claim
that the offsets are verified. I have yet to figure out who verifies
the verifiers. No place could I find an offset ecommerce site that
promotes the idea of a high enough carbon tax to actually reduce
emissions enough to make a difference, and, hopefully, but the offset
brokers out of business.
Nor do I find any evidence
that offsets does anything other than help people justify high levels
of consumption. A friend of mine who works for a prominent magazine
dedicated to travel, adventure and sustainability admitted in a conversation
in which she was defending offsets that when she first became aware
of the implications of climate crisis she stopped heli- skiing. "If
I was going to ski I was going to walk to the top of the mountain." Than
she found out about offsets and started heli-skiing again.
The other defense of
offsets is that even though their effect is minimal they sound good,
because they "raise consciousness" and/or are a "good start." Sounds
good, but the argument does not stand up to even minimal scrutiny.
Is there any reason to believe that when Al Gore pays offsets for
the carbon footprint of his 3 houses and his private jet travel that
it is a start towards him raising his consciousness to make some
real sacrifices to tighten his carbon belt?
Is their historical
evidence that offsets work as an educational tool or a good start?
Did the Catholic Church selling indulgences for sinful behavior in
the middle ages serve as start for people to learn to sin less or
did it just encourage them to keep sinning, while buying them less
time in purgatory? I am not saying here that selling indulgences
for rape and pillage is the moral equivalent to selling offsets for
a quick getaway to Cancun. But it is in the same spirit.
I am also not saying
that our life-styles are sinful. My view is that rather than being
sinful, we are human. And being human we are not saints. Al Gore
does not fly around private jets because he is bad; he flies around
in private jets because he can afford to---as would I. It seems to
me hypocritical to criticize Al Gore for using private jets unless
you have enough money to be able to do so and do not. But it also
seems to me that a regime that allows the most prominent spokesman
in the US for doing something about climate change to have an extraordinarily
large carbon footprint in the long run is bound to breed more cynicism
about sustainability than converts, no matter how effective it is
in the short run.
What I am saying is
that the cause of sustainability and dealing with the impacts of
climate crisis would be much better served if we stopped trying to
hoodwink ourselves and others into thinking we can offset our carbon
footprints. If we feel guilty about our carbon footprints we should
reduce then or get over our guilt. We can't fool the glaciers into
What's more, all of
the above assumes that the money that received from the offset buyers
is spent honestly. That is a hopelessly optimistic assumption. While
there must be instances in which the money is being honestly spent
on projects that promise to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,
there also must be many other instances in which to put it bluntly
the money is being ripped off.
In a way even more pernicious than the out and out rip offs is
offset money going to
good causes dishonestly represented. An example of this is that the majority
of the money spent for offsets in Costa Rica is used to protect old growth forest in parks and reserves.
It is logical that it should be this way. Costa Rica is famous for
protecting old growth tropical forests and an impressive percentage
of the national territory is under protection.
Furthermore maintaining old growth forest is a very worthy cause.
There is one small problem. Old growth tropical forests are carbon
neutral; they do not offset any carbon. Reforestation of pastures
sequesters carbon, but in Costa Rica very little of the carbon offset
money goes into reforestation, because the owners of the pastures
are dispersed and not connected to the international networks that
dole out the offset money. Also, in many cases the money for offsets
is not enough to reforest a pasture. It is only enough to protect
a forest that you are going to protect anyway. Gotta pay those administrative
and marketing costs.
What you do get with
offsets is a whole industry with a vested interest against carbon
taxes that would be high enough to actually reduce the amount of
carbon we generate. As I pointed out above, with a high carbon tax,
the offset brokers are going to have to find other work.While carbon
offsets do not get you a whole lot of sustainability, what they do
get you is hype. Google Carbon
Neutral and you get 1,930,000 results. and you get 1,930,000
results. Costa Rica's Nature Air, Silverjet and Netjets all claim
to be the world's first carbon neutral aviation company. I lost count
at 25 "first" carbon neutral conferences. All through the magic
By and large the media
reports all this with a straight face.
Right now carbon neutrality through offsets is a media darling.
Years ago a week did not go by when some journalist did not ask me
up about what we were doing to support local communities. Now the
media wouldn't notice if we were running a white slavery operation
in a local community as long as it was carbon neutral.
Media darlings have
a way of becoming media goats. Almost certainly in my view the press
is going to start to investigate the most ridiculous claims and how
the money is spent. They will concentrate on the worse abuses and
tar good and bad with the same brush. As somebody said, "The new
yellow journalism is green."
Which brings me to the science: Every responsible scientist that
I can find believes that the climate is changing, and that on balance
the impacts will be more or less catastrophic. As time goes on, the
direr the predictions of responsible mainstream scientists. The most
pessimistic, people like James Lovelock, go so far as to contemplate
the possibility that eventually climate change will threaten civilization,
as we know it.
There is slightly less
agreement about the relative roles of man-made factors and natural
cycles, but the great preponderance of evidence is that human kind
has played a decisive and negative role especially by the production
and releasing of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Up until this point
the picture is pretty clear, but as soon as we get to where in the
cycle we are now, and what we should be doing about it, the clarity
My friend Robert Aglow
won a Columbia Dupont Award for producing a documentary on climate
change for ABC news some12 years ago.He has been avidly following
the topic ever since. In a recent email he gave me his "dispassionate" take
in on where the science stands now, "There is no way to determine
if we are at a tipping point, or tipping points because the best
scientists in the world can't predict exactly how or when the various
positive feedback scenarios (they call them positive feedback which
is misleading, of course, since they have very negative effects)
they are beginning to concentrate on will play out."
So if this is the case what do we do? Here's Aglow again.
LOOKING AT THE PROBLEM
"So to your question of whether we build dykes and floating cities
and the rest or come up with real alternative fuel sources and sustainable
living models, the answer is that both are necessary simultaneously."
In my view it is not so much a matter of what to do about the problem
as how to look at the problem. When we dedicate time and treasure
to sustainability we are not buying sustainability in the sense that
when we buy a car we get a car. Way before the carbon neutrality
bandwagon, money and time spent on sustainability was an investment,
not a purchase. And investment intrinsically means risk. Invest in
eliminating DDT maybe we get non-toxic produce and mother's milk;
maybe we get 800,000 deaths from malaria. In this case we got both.
Since we are talking
about investing, the golden rules about investing apply: Above all,
diversify among high risk/high return and tried and true initiatives.
Beware of bubbles and bandwagons.
If everybody bets on
the same thing you get a bubble. The great offset fever that we are
witnessing at the moment with everybody racing to be the first or
the biggest carbon neutral this or carbon neutral that is the sustainability
equivalent of the .com bubble of the nineties and the housing bubble
that is in the process of bursting at the moment. Bubbles always
Above all diversify.
The most aggressive sustainability investors will want to make massive
investments in carbon neutrality. At the same time it is still worthwhile
and vital to continue to protect wildlife and wildlands -- biodiversity
will always be important whatever happens with the climate. For some
investing to protect an important work of art or architecture will
still be the right answer. We can't be expected to do a good job
with nature if we neglect the great works of man.
Finally by all means helping local communities support themselves
and become self-sufficient is still the lynch pin of sustainability
in the developing world -- and often the weak link. If the dire predictions
of climate change play out as many of us fear, local communities
will be more vulnerable than ever.
In short (and in my
personal opinion) anything but offsets.
Of course if you would
have bought indulgences in the middle ages, buy offsets now. The
offset brokers gotta live too---and it just might get you some good
press ... for a while.
Since I first wrote this I have become increasingly aware of something
more troubling then the dubious science and social policy. That is
a concerted effort to stifle dissent with a zeal worthy of the Bush
administration. Responsible critics of offsets like Bjorn
Lomborg the Danish environmentalist are vilified. I am not sure
whether this intolerence of disent is due the amount of money there
is to be made with offsets of political correctness. I suspect both.
Several people have told me in private that they agree with my views
on offsets, but would not say so in public. I asked one of them why
not and he told me that he lived in Berkley.
Michael Kaye is the president of Costa
Rica Expeditions. Michael also wrote Rules
for Writing Travel Copy and The
Great Training Robbery.