[editor’s note, by David Roberts] Important update to this post here.

It turns out that Climate Care, a major indulgence offset provider, is paying farmers in India to pump water with treadles rather than diesel pumps in order to offset plane flights.

I would hope that supporters of offsets would be as quick as opponents to see what is wrong with this. In case someone is reading this before their morning coffee, I will simply point out that it is one thing for rich, overweight Americans to substitute manual labor for energy use, and another for a poor Indian farmer who already has plenty of manual labor in his life to do so. It is paying poor people to suffer to offset plane rides for the rich.

Incidentally, comparing offsets to indulgences is an analogy. It is not something you prove, or don’t. It is an assertion that one thing resembles another — and we certainly have had some cases lately that resemble the medieval practice.

The comparison is not a meme that originated in a single place and spread. It seems to spontaneously occur to a large number of people the first time they hear about the idea of offsets. “Paying poor people to save carbon so you don’t” just doesn’t sound like a good thing.

David argued in “Indulgences redux” that a survey by TerraPass showing that the majority of purchasers of offsets are good, green people settles once and for all that there is no validity in the indulgence metaphor./p>

To start with, the survey was conducted online; it was a self-selected sample. Basic statistics guidelines require that for a survey to be valid, it must be based on a random sample. Self-selected samples are by their nature biased. The conclusions don’t sound particularly unlikely, but the survey adds no meaningful data on that question.

The assumption that the indulgences analogy refers to the purchase of offsets by insensitive gas guzzlers misunderstands how indulgences work. If you look at stories featuring indulgences (Chaucer, for example) or cautioning against the practice, you will find that most indulgences were not bought as a permission to commit sins. Generally, an indulgence peddler would come and scare people about how their dead relatives were suffering in purgatory. Granny might be boiling in a pot of melted lead at this very minute! Your poor, dead brother may be roasting on a spit! Donate to the church, shorten their time of penance, and hasten their ascension to eternal bliss.

Offsets are possible only as long as the world puts only minor efforts into fighting climate change. If we seek serious emissions reductions, there are not enough potential emissions cuts in the entire developing world for the rich nations to avoid making major reductions as well. A real effort will require big enough changes from everyone that there simply won’t be sufficient offsets to make a major difference — unless, of course, we create a lot of paper offsets without real additionality. That’s why it’s so important that additionality is hard to document, and that a huge number of counterfeit credits are circulating within both the CDM system and the voluntary markets.

[Update]There is a bit of hypocrisy in my including the poll below. Can you spot it? Please feel free to take the poll anyway.

Sorry, the poll you are seeking no longer exists. If you’re in a voting mood, suggest a poll and you might just see it on the site.