David objects to calling offsets indulgences.

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 is disingenuous on two levels.

First the indulgence metaphor is primarily aimed at CDM and JT under the Kyoto treaty, where offsets are legally permissions to emit. An offset that is less than 100 percent perfect in that context is very like indulgences at their worst; net emissions are higher than they would be without the offset.

Offsets under Kyoto are imperfect indeed. About 20 percent of CDM credits under Kyoto consist of F5 gas reductions — which would be fine, except that a lot of poor nation factories increased their production of those gases in order to then reduce their production and sell the credits. And F5 gases are not the only problematic CDMs that have been sold. Incidentally, as Kyoto ceilings are lowered, CDM is being increased. A great deal of lobbying is taking place to lower CDM standards. Certainly I don’t see any signs they will be made stricter.

OK, but David focuses on the voluntary market, where people are not meeting any legal obligation. Is it fair to hold private offsets to such strict standards?

For example, when Google decides to run a data center on coal power and then buy offsets, isn’t this very much like a medieval knight buying an indulgence? The knight may not have had an evil heart. He may have honestly had the best of intentions, as might the pardoner selling him the offset-I-mean-indulgence. In spite of Chaucer’s “Pardoner’s Tale” (which preceded Luther by centuries), I suspect most buyers and sellers of indulgences had good intentions. Some of the money raised by selling indulgences went toward good works. But it did not change the fact that it was a fundamentally dishonest type of market.

Let me offer some reasons why the voluntary offset providers should be judged by strict standards:

  1. Voluntary offset sales act as viral marketing for cap and trade. When competing bills are introduced in Congress, don’t you think that people who have purchased offsets or even heard extensive favorable coverage of them will be more likely to support cap and trade over auctioned permits? No, we don’t have surveys; but is the observation that people tend to favor what is familiar to them inadmissible evidence?
  2. A voluntary market is a precursor to a market under a permitting system. It would be odd if someone went into the voluntary offset business without favoring a cap-and-trade system. If we ever get a U.S. cap-and-trade system, the standards will likely be adapted from the voluntary market. Depending on how it is set up, it is possible that some voluntary offsets will be allowed to apply for certification under such markets. So long as voluntary offsets have CO2 equivalents attached to them, they have to be judged as permits to pollute.