What if you could offset your sexual infidelity by paying a relatively small sum of money to foster someone else’s monogamous relationship? That’s the premise behind the Cheatneutral Web site, which is designed to spoof and critique carbon offsetting. Yet millions of individual and corporate consumers have embraced offsets, and finance companies with big names like Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan have gotten into the business of offering them.
Indeed, since 2005 the market for voluntary offsets has skyrocketed. In 2008, it doubled in both volume and value from the year before, reaching US $705 million, according to New Carbon Finance, a branch of the global consultancy New Energy Finance.
The physical and philosophical basis for offsets is that greenhouse gases mix rapidly throughout Earth’s atmosphere, so that if less is emitted in one place it truly makes up for greater emissions someplace else. In this sense, the carbon market is fundamentally different from Cheatneutral’s bizarre fidelity bazaar, where a Delhi woman’s faithfulness does nothing to assuage the pain felt by the London cuckold. Lower carbon emissions in India, in the long run, really do make life better in England, or at least less risky.
But that assumes that the Indian emissions are lowered in response to the offsets purchased, which is a big if . So questionable is that premise, some environmental experts believe offsets are no more effective at neutralizing the sins of consumption than medieval indulgences were at ensuring residence in heaven. Some even claim that the offset market is intrinsically harmful.
Offsets are appealing because they offer individuals an opportunity to do something about climate change without having to get involved in politics or office squabbling. If you are concerned about the carbon dioxide produced and emitted when you’re driving your car, traveling by airplane, or heating and cooling your home and running your appliances, all you have to do is pay a small sum of money to a for-profit broker, who (after taking a fee to cover costs) puts that cash into a program that supposedly prevents greenhouse gases from entering or remaining in the atmosphere from some other source. The brokers obtain carbon credits equivalent to your usage—which are retired from the market—and you rest assured that your carbon output is neutralized.
For instance, a round-trip flight from New York City to San Francisco of 8279 kilometers in a standard seat represents 676 kilograms of carbon dioxide, according to leading offset broker TerraPass. For $11.90, TerraPass says it will neutralize the carbon through its contribution to a climate-saving program.
Most participants in the offsets market, however, are not individuals merely wanting to feel better about their summer vacations. Individual eco-conscious consumers account for only about 5 percent of the voluntary market—offsets bought and sold outside the framework of government incentives and regulations—estimates Thomas Marcello, a lead analyst at New Carbon Finance. The rest, for the most part, is corporate. Some U.S. companies buy offsets to get a feel for what will be involved when they need to do so when a cap-and-trade system is inaugurated. But most do so simply to project an environment-friendly image.
Certainly, offsets are an expedient way to paint a green façade. Last August, for example, Dell Computers claimed that it had achieved 100 percent carbon neutrality, mostly by purchasing offsets. The U.S. National Football League used offsets to help neutralize the carbon generated by recent Super Bowls. In January, Motorola unveiled what it called the world’s first carbon-neutral phone. Besides making the phone of recycled plastic, the company vows to offset the carbon produced during the phone’s manufacture, distribution, and operation.