The carbon offset industry is new and unproven, and there are some bad examples like planting trees in silly places where they will just die. But we shouldn't let those growing pains distract us from the crucial point: If you take flights, or drive, or you have a big house, you've put some major emissions into the environment, and it's your moral obligation to take them back out again. The best carbon offset programs do exactly that. Buying offsets is miles better than not buying offsets at all.
Sure, we also do need to change our behavior as much as we can to minimize those emissions in the first place. Things like: bike locally, live close to where you work, take trains on midrange trips, reduce the number of longrange trips. Many of us have done all of that. But there's still a few plane trips many of us are not willing to give up. Last week I visited my elderly 75-year-old dad who just got injured, and nothing would have stopped me from doing this trip. For those flights we still do take, carbon offsets are exactly the right thing to do. It's not "lame" or a "placebo" or a guilt-alleviator. It is practical: it removes CO2 from the atmosphere.
Oh yes: the trees. Planting trees seems to have been getting a bad rap recently, but it shouldn't be scoffed at. It's not just a meaningless feel-good gesture. Plants remove CO2 from the environment. That's what photosynthesis IS, and trees are fantastically good at doing exactly that. The northern forests remove so much every summer that they reduce the CO2 content in the entire global atmosphere. Put a summer forest head-to-head with an industrial city and the summer forest can easily soak up everything the city is putting out. (Where we lose ground, globally, is in the northern winter, when the vast northern forests are shut down.)
It's up to us to check out the carbon offset programs and make sure they are really hooked up to effective programs that will really work, that preserve or replant vegetation in areas where it can really grow - and not just die - and also where it will be part of a healthy ecosystem, not just a monoculture of soybeans or corn. My personal favorite offset programs are those that:
1) pay villagers that to conserve intact land in the tropics
2) replant deforested areas in tropical rain forest or tropical savanna
3) encourage villagers to deforest less, by reducing the need for firewood or slash-and-burn agriculture.
Brazil has some good programs going right now, that I have visited on the ground. Costa Rica too. There's an inventive program in Peru that's trying to distribute little efficient stoves to the villagers so they don't have to burn piles of wood every night just to keep warm. These programs DO make a difference. It's up to us to find the best programs. Giving up and saying "some carbon offset programs are lame so I'm not going to buy carbon offsets" is, frankly, a copout. My question to those people is, if you took a cross-country flight that put 1.2 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere per passenger, what exactly are you going to do about your 1.2 tons of CO2? Just leave it up there?
Carbon offsetting will make you feel better about being responsible for pouring tonnes of emissions into the atmosphere, and its efficacy is increasing all the time. It also changes behaviours, and most carbon offsetting programs are far from lame - planting trees where they'll just die really does not happen that often.
Carbon offsetting is certainly not the environmental panacea many enviornmentalist suggest it is. And I'm not sure the planet experiences the placebo effect. But hell, I'm sure the starving polar bears will appreciate the gesture.
James Nash is a climate scientist with Greatest Planet (www.greatestplanet.org). Greatest Planet is a non-profit environmental organization specialising in carbon offset investments.
James Nash is solely responsible for the contents of this article.