Recently, I discussed why I purchase carbon offsets and why I believe they are not just sufficiently effective but highly so. Today, I would like to address what I perceive as the primary counter argument, which is that by purchasing offsets, one may feel they have paid for their “indulgences” and is therefore free to pollute.
First, the word “indulgence” is obviously a loaded term, and it is not
particularly relevant anyway, as while most pollution (particular
carbon) is completely fungible, while most sins are not. Nature doesn’t
give a whit if I add a ton of CO2 here today and remove one there tomorrow.
In contrast, I don’t get a free pass to steal from someone because I
happened to return someone else’s lost purse. The idea that one can pay
for immoral behavior with moral behavior is silly; the idea that you can
clean up your messes is not. While there may be some borderline cases,
this isn’t one of them, as the fungibility of carbon emissions is
The crux of the matter, however, is the question as to what effects have
on the purchaser’s emissions. One could argue that this is actually
irrelevant, if the purchaser is honestly offsetting all their emissions.
But even ignoring that point, do emissions actually increase for a typical purchaser? At least
in my case, I strongly doubt it and in fact expect the reverse is true.
There are in fact four mechanisms by which my emissions decrease when I
1: The $100-200 I spend on offsets annually is $100-200 less I have to
spend on anything else. Since there are few things I possibly could
spend the money on that didn’t involve emissions, my emissions are
almost certainly reduced. This represents a couple tenths of a percent
of my income and likely decreases my total emissions by a similar
2: Supply and demand. Knowing I have to purchase offsets causes me to
perceive a higher price for any carbon-intensive activity and thus
discourages me marginally from doing it
3: Guilt. In fact, this is so strong that just about every offset
purchase I have ever made has been coupled with either donations to
environmental organizations or volunteering with them
4: Direct action. Similar to above, my offset purchases usually spur me
to act directly to reduce my emissions. They are like a big alarm clock
that reminds me to check my tire pressure, fix that leaky window, or
finally ditch that old, inefficient appliance.
Environmentalists who reject offsets do so essentially entirely two
claims – that offsets don’t work, which I addressed last time, and that
they cause the purchaser’s emissions to rise. Yet for the latter to be
the case, the logic of indulgence – which just about anyone purchasing
offsets would reject on principle – has to trump all four of the
emission-decreasing effects listed above, two of which are rooted in
very basic economic principles. Not only do I find this implausible, I
am utterly certain in my own case that the balance lies heavily in the
other direction, and that my offset purchases cause my emissions to drop
substantially. Additionally, as I noted earlier, this is all likely
irrelevant anyway because I am more-than-honestly offsetting all my
emissions in the first place.
It goes even further than this. Even if one was only successfully
offsetting a fraction of one’s emissions, the environment would likely
come out ahead. If someone was emitting 10 tons a year before offsets,
but post-offset emits 12 and offsets 8, there is still a net 60% reduction in carbon. I would hazard a guess that offset purchasers whose emissions
increase by more than their successful offset purchases are close to
non-existent. For example, if a typical purchaser successfully offsets half their emissions (failing in the other half due to either underestimating their emissions that need to offset, or buying offsets of insufficient quality), then their emissions would have to double in order to have a net negative impact. Barring a huge salary increase, a typical person would have to go out of their way to double their emissions, literally finding ways to burn fossil fuels with most of their spare cash. No one is going to do that. Even if there is a bump in people's emissions, which I doubt, it is unlikely to be anything more than a modest 10-20%, which in turn is almost certainly less than what they are offsetting. I simply see no plausible route for offset purchases to increase emissions.