Over the past couple of weeks, there’s been a strangely heated debate on this site about carbon offsets. In this post, I’ll speculate about why the concept is so charged, and argue that it doesn’t warrant all the heat. And then I will leave the subject behind, at least for now.

Start here: why is an offset called an “offset”? We find a clue on Merriam-Webster: "something that serves to counterbalance or to compensate for something else." The idea is, you put CO2 into the air, and you buy offsets to "counterbalance or compensate for" it.

In other words, offsets are closely tied to your personal behavior. You emit more CO2, you buy more offsets; you emit less, you buy less. And hell, you can buy offsets instead of emitting less. Why reduce your own emissions when you can just pay someone else to reduce theirs?

That, in a nutshell, is why offsets infuriate people. Here are greens, asking for everyone to reduce their CO2 emissions on one hand, and then hawking a way for people to buy their way out of it on the other. How elitist. How American, the notion that cash can substitute for sacrifice. Just as with Medieval indulgences, you aren’t really dealing honestly with your sin if you just pay it off, are you?

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I get all that. I understand that visceral reaction. But I think it’s misplaced.

Why? Because offsets aren’t tied to your personal behavior. Not really. It’s an illusion created by marketing, by all the carbon calculators and bumper stickers — even by the name itself. Offsets have been made to appear as if they are tied to your personal emissions, for obvious reasons. (How else could people be persuaded to buy them?) But it is not an intrinsic feature of the product.

As sold in the private, voluntary U.S. offset market, an offset is nothing more than a chunk of un-emitted CO2. That’s it. It’s no more complicated than buying a head of lettuce, and no more relates your other behavior than lettuce does.

Say Person A struggles to reduce her personal emissions as low as humanly possible, while Person B flies in private jets, lives in a mansion, and drives a Hummer. According to the marketing, they’re supposed to calculate their carbon footprints. Person A is supposed to buy very few offsets; Person B is supposed to buy a lot.

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But why? An offset is just an emission reduction. Person A wants emissions reduced, right? Why shouldn’t she buy a whole shitload of offsets along with reducing her own emissions? Why shouldn’t Person B, who’s presumably rich, buy double or triple the amount that shows up on his carbon calculator? Why should their carbon footprints have anything to do with it?

An offset is a product (specifically an amount of un-emitted CO2). As with any consumer product, the consideration that governs how much you purchase is how much you want.

Say you’re concerned about climate change. You want GHG emissions reduced. What should you do? Well, there are a variety of options open to you.

  • You can change your own patterns of behavior. The reductions will be small in the grand scheme of things, but they can be roughly quantified, and the social effects may ripple out via example.
  • You can contribute to nonprofits working around climate/energy. They are fighting for very large emission reductions, but then, it’s impossible to quantify how or whether your modest contribution will translate into reductions.
  • You can get involved in the political process. This represents a high potential payoff, but also a high risk of futility, and again, it’s impossible to quantify your efforts in terms of reductions.
  • You can proselytize, like your uncle Dave. This is likely a waste of time.
  • You can get involved in the business sector and try to show how money can be made reducing emissions. Hard to quantify, but large potential ripple benefits.
  • You can purchase carbon offsets. The amount of GHG involved is fairly small, but on the upside, it can be quantified with a fair degree of precision.

What mix of strategies you choose will depend on your own circumstances, talents, proclivities, socioeconomic status, and level of commitment.

It’s impossible to know which strategy (or set of strategies) is optimal. Each — not just offsets — carries the risk of failure, or at least misplaced effort. Each has something to recommend it.

There’s no reason to think that any one of these strategies — including offsets — "distracts" from the others. There’s no reason to think that pursuing one will make pursuing the others less likely. None has any special moral advantage or flaw. A molecule of CO2 is a molecule of CO2.

Here’s one thing we can all agree on: everyone should do something. Here’s another: everyone should do more.

Beyond that, judging others based on how they express their concern is counterproductive at best, risible at worst. People do more when they feel empowered and confident; they do less when they feel powerless and inadequate. The key is not to debate endlessly over the optimal application of effort, but to expand the total pool of effort being expended.