Clear Skies and a Clear Conscience?

If you’ve heard celebrities, politicians, and even friends
buzzing about how they’ve eliminated the negative environmental
effects of their car or plane travel by going ‘carbon neutral’ or
using ‘offsets,’ you may be wondering exactly what they’re talking
about. What most people mean when they speak of carbon offsetting
is the notion that planting trees will remove — or at least
balance out — carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere when we
drive cars or heat our homes. Another incarnation of offsetting
declares that emissions circumvented through increased energy
efficiency (say, driving a hybrid or installing better insulation)
are ‘savings.’

If you’re still scratching your head, wondering how compensating
for a gas-guzzler with a sapling and some fluorescent light bulbs
adds up to a cleaner environment, you may be on the right track.
While these steps could indeed make Mother Earth happy, critics say
that offsets aren’t a pass to continue our travel-filled, wasteful
lifestyles unabated. In fact, some argue, they may not even
work.

In an effort to clear the confusion, WorldChanging
the website on all things sustainable — solicited Dr. Ron Dembo of
ZeroFootprint (the company hired to offset WorldChanging‘s
current book tour) and journalist Clive Davidson to
write a response to criticisms of the
offsetting system. Dembo and Davidson address the important
conundrum that offsetting may actually encourage us to pollute by
eliminating the guilt associated with it. The team proposes that
offset companies should also require some reduction in emissions
overall.

For ZeroFootprint, the answer seems to be use less and offset
the rest. A
New Internationalist piece by Adam
Ma’anit, however, takes a more skeptical view, arguing that the
logic behind offsetting is ‘hotly disputed.’ Trees are, at best, a
temporary storage place for carbon dioxide. When they die —
naturally, by fire, or through harvesting — the carbon is released
back into the atmosphere from which it came. Carbon removed from
the ground in fossil fuels, however, is released into the
atmosphere permanently.

And according to Ma’anit, even if climate offsets did work, they
still cause harm by enabling projects or justifying lifestyles that
should be reined in. What’s more, the exotic tree species often
planted as offsetters rarely absorb the amount of carbon they are
projected to — perhaps because many of them die in habitats they
weren’t bred for — and they have been known to degrade the land
they are planted on. Added to that is the fact that the entire
business is steeped in encroachment on native land in the global
South, where the trees are planted, though some clever marketers
now promote commandeering of the land as positive
‘development.’

Ma’anit’s critique is a scathing, and perhaps demoralizing, one.
Some may prefer Dembo and Davidson’s middle path of using offsets
as the last option, after ‘reduce, recycle or restore.’ There may
be some instances where neutralization is in order — recycling,
they write, creates emissions that could be offset. And even
Ma’anit approves the use of ‘some well-designed and appropriate
tree-planting projects,’ though he remains clear that we will never
‘consume our way out’ of climate change. The only real answer,
concludes Ma’anit, lies in social change — using less and making
what we do use truly renewable.

Go there >>
Designing Away The Problems of Offsetting

Go there too >>
If You Go Down to the Woods Today…

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