First, let me state that I have no dog in this fight. Although I've periodically mentioned a particular marketer of offsets, TerraPass, my only interest in their business is as a satisfied customer. With regard to offsets in general, all I have at stake is my sincere--and I believe well-informed--conviction that they create a useful means for harvesting some inexpensive first steps toward dealing with climate change, which I regard as a very serious problem.
Objections to the practice seem to fall into three main categories:
- Offsets are illusory, providing no meaningful reduction in actual emissions, and thus have no impact on climate change.
- Offsets make it easier for consumers to ignore and perpetuate the real emissions that result from their actions and choices.
- The sector is new and unregulated, so you can't tell if you are paying a fair price for offsets, or if your money is going into a black hole, buying emissions reductions that would happen anyway or funding a clever scam.
As to the first argument, in many cases it reflects more on those making it than on the subject at hand. The comparison of offsets to papal indulgences, cited in the NY Times article, smacks of a puritanical strain of environmentalism that can't encompass any contribution from human ingenuity or market economics. For these folks, less is more, especially when it's your less. It must be galling to them that the exact equivalent of the annual CO2 output of a typical American car can be eliminated for about 1% of the cost of operating it, instead of through a draconian hike in fuel taxes or a radical vehicle redesign. And that's precisely why their arguments are misplaced: climate change is fundamentally different from any other environmental issue we've ever dealt with, and unless we approach it with minds that are open to novel solutions, our efforts to slow its progress will be much less effective than they might be. The world will be both poorer and warmer, if the critics of offsets have their way. Expect to hear a lot more about this issue in the years ahead.