Carbon Offsets: Good Stewardship or Grand Scam?

Our Lutheran Church’s advocacy offices have purchased carbon offset credits "to mitigate their carbon emissions accumulated through air travel" (full ELCA News release here).  The purchase of carbon offsets is rooted in good intentions, for sure, but are carbon offsets a legitimate way to mitigate the negative environmental impacts of our energy consumption?  I’m not so sure.

At the least, the whole science of carbon offsets is quite complicated and not entirely clear.  An article over at The Economist’s website – A Tale of Two Markets – argues that carbon offsets "probably do reduce one’s carbon footprint, but by nowhere near the
one-for-one ration that seems to be implied by the extraordinarily low
price of carbon offsets."  A Google search using the terms "carbon offset scam" produces quite a few interesting articles, not all of which are written by nasty pollution-loving big-business Republicans.

And of course, if we purchase carbon offsets in large part to assuage our guilt for polluting God’s creation, our guilt is no longer a motivating  factor for us to reduce our carbon footprint in real ways – such as driving less, consuming less, and reusing and recycling more.  We can just buy our way out of the problem!  Carbon offsets are just one more thing we can consume, contributing to – rather than changing – the consumerist cycle that causes climate change in the first place.

About Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.
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3 Responses to Carbon Offsets: Good Stewardship or Grand Scam?

  1. PS says:

    Air travel, I’ve read, is supposed to be one of the worst carbon producer. Says She, who just got back from overseas. And…there is so much waste with all the food packaging onboard!
    Purchasing carbon offsets seems like some kind of reverse parable of Jesus to me. I haven’t quite worked out the details on that one yet.

  2. Andy says:

    I read a really good piece on this in a Canadian newspaper this summer. Their conclusion was that it depends very heavily on who you get your offsets from. A lot of people selling carbon offsets apparently aren’t really making much of a difference. They were particularly against reforestation. The key, they said, was to fund projects that wouldn’t get done without the money going into carbon offsets. One example project I remember was building a sustainable power plant somewhere in India. Countries with less wealth than the U.S. will typically choose cheaper, less environmentally friendly options for building up their infrastructure, but our guilt can fund their future in a better, more sustainable way. Even if it doesn’t really offset our carbon production it’s a good idea.

  3. Bill says:

    Your last paragraph seems very familiar, Chris. Hmmmm.
    You seem to be writing a 95 theses for the new millenium. Something to nail to the door of the National Cathedral. But you aren’t there quite yet. You need to build it up more. Perhaps you should find a solitary figure to spar with, a Tetzel of the carbon credit crowd. A figure to embody the duplicity of purchasing grace for your carbon-emission sins.
    May I suggest Al Gore?
    Ok, enough of that. In all seriousness, I think you are right. Very good post.

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