I’ve been watching the public debate over carbon offsets out of the corner of my eye for some time, and have formed a general impression, which I would like at long last to get off my chest.
Offset critics often strike a moralistic tone, comparing offsets to medieval "indulgences." Let’s be clear: That rhetorical gimmick makes no damn sense whatsoever. If there really were such a thing as sin, and there was a finite amount of it in the world, and it was the aggregate amount of sin that mattered rather than any individual’s contribution, and indulgences really did reduce aggregate sin, then indulgences would have been a perfectly sensible idea. The comparison is a weak and transparent smear, which makes me wonder why critics rely so heavily on it.
Critics insist that people use offsets to justify and absolve overconsumptive lifestyles. The idea is that the rich and fabulous casually toss a few bucks at offsets to unburden their consciences, so they can keep flying their private jets. But I have quite literally never seen any evidence offered to support this charge. No statistical evidence, no polls or surveys, not even any anecdotal evidence. It’s just stated, over and over again, as though it is axiomatically true, that the primary use of offsets is to excuse people’s bad behavior.
Critics imply and/or state outright that just as every customer in the private offset market is a dupe, every vendor is a huckster out to make a quick buck off the gullible. But again, no names are ever named, no individual hucksters called out, no fraud identified.
In contrast, the actual offset purchasers I’ve met — via the internet or in the "real world" — tend to be environmentally concerned and engaged. They view offsets as something they can do in addition to other things they do to lighten their footprint. This impression is supported by what little survey data I’ve seen, as well as by common sense. If you don’t give a sh*t about the climate, why bother purchasing offsets? And if you do, why do only that? What is the personality profile of the guy who buys offsets and then considers his work done? I’ve never met him and have trouble envisioning him.
Similarly, every actual human being I’ve interacted with who’s involved in the private offset market has been articulate, intelligent, environmentally conscientious, and committed to transparency and shared standards. They’ve all been aware of the problems and perils of offsets and committed to improving the market so that it has the intended effect, i.e., reducing aggregate CO2 emissions. I have been favorably impressed with the people I’ve spoken to at offset companies, almost without exception.
Now, this isn’t meant as a substantive argument about offsets. I have mixed feelings about them and share many of the common concerns — the difficulty of precisely measuring additionality; the potential for shenanigans in a largely unregulated market; the potential to sap people’s willingness to make tough choices. IMO, blanket judgments about the private offset market are premature. This is just an observation about how the debate is playing out.
You can’t judge an issue based on the argumentative rigor of either side’s proponents — plenty of bad arguments have been made for true positions, and vice versa — but at the same time, it’s not an entirely irrelevant heuristic. From where I’m sitting, most (not all) offset providers seem to be grappling honestly with issues, while most (not all) critics seem to be waggling their fingers at strawmen.