Tue 25 Nov 2008
There are a variety of actions that property developers may take to help solve global warming. One is the purchase of carbon offsets — financial credits representing renewable energy or other facilities that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Developers may purchase carbon offsets to offset the vehicle emissions associated with their land development projects. This is undoubtedly better than no action at all; however, offsets suffer from a number of functional and philosophical shortcomings that render them less-than-optimal as a solution. There are more direct and effective actions available, and those are what the sustainable development industry should encourage.
There have already been flaws uncovered in the carbon offset industry, ranging from obvious cheating and scams, to sincere firms using flawed calculation methods. For the purpose of this discussion, let’s ignore all of that. Let’s assume that all carbon offsets adhere to a high standard like the Gold Standard.
Even so, there is something less than ethical about paying somebody else to solve the problem you aren’t solving yourself. Especially when they happen to be halfway around the world. Whatever happened to “Think Globally, Act Locally”? That saying is drawn from a distinguished philosophical tradition (Leopold Kohr, E.F. Schumacher, Rene Dubos, etc.) and it is still relevant today.
Carbon offsets perpetuate the fiction that we can pay others to solve global warming while doing nothing to change our own patterns of energy use. All energy experts recognize that it will be extremely difficult to replace the current level of energy production with clean, carbon-free sources. Many claim it is impossible. The task of converting to carbon-free energy will be far easier if it is accompanied by a reduction in the demand for energy. Especially here in the U.S., we cannot simply expect technology to fix all of our carbon emissions. We are so profligate in our usage that some degree of demand reduction will be required. Our challenge is to reduce energy demand while maintaining a high quality of life.