Can you buy a greener conscience?
The commodification of ethics comes in for more scrutiny. The LA Times is on the issue, too:
The race to save the planet from global warming has spawned a budding industry of middlemen selling environmental salvation at bargain prices.
The companies take millions of dollars collected from their customers and funnel them into carbon-cutting projects, such as tree farms in Ecuador, windmills in Minnesota and no-till fields in Iowa.
In return, customers get to claim the reductions, known as voluntary carbon offsets, as their own. For less than $100 a year, even a Hummer can be pollution-free — at least on paper.
Tom Boucher, chief executive of Native Energy, said people should first reduce their energy consumption and waste, and then buy offsets — “the only way to really get to zero unless you stop driving, stop traveling.”
But the industry is clouded by an approach to carbon accounting that makes it easy to claim reductions that didn’t occur. Many projects that have received money from offset companies would have reduced emissions by the same amount anyway.
This is the point I was making back with the Wired article (none of my students seem to have found this site, so my reticence was entirely wasted).
Cap-and-trade, for example, works because the trade is pushed along by the cap. We trade a steadily declining commodity: the right to pollute. Voluntary carbon-neutral schemes do not. One’s right to pump shit out their exhaust pipes is not declining, and paying for trees that already exist are not going to help that. There is a chance, certainly, that your donation may secure a tree that otherwise would fall – but that, too, is not saving the planet. Planting trees, sure (say, via Future Forests), as long as the carbon neutralised is measured accurately and sold honestly.
As with the Wired article, which touted companies buying the right to pave over a wetland – there is a net reduction in wetlands as a result. The purchase of some environmental credibility was only that: the wetlands, and the service they provide to the planet, were not replaced.
This is the key problem with voluntary carbon conscience ameliorating: the markets are fundamentally different. Cap-and-trade works because the market for pollution is tied directly to the credits being traded. A lot of the trading schemes (and the LA Times article has plenty) do not meet this key criterion. Purchasing something that already exists (moreso if it’s an acre of trees in Asia, somewhere) is one market. Cutting down trees, burning up petrol, etc. (moreso if it is not in Asia) is another market, and neither economics nor biology will say the two can cancel each other out.
More importantly, without the ‘cap’ aspect, the price in the ‘trade’ part isn’t representing what relatively sound economic theory dictates. There is meant to be a price attached to the reduction of pollution. With not a single limit placed upon one’s household carbon emissions, and a price on offsets that do not reflect the scarcity invoked by those limits, we are probably buying little more than the Feeling of Good. You may as well go by some weed and smoke it until you feel better. You even get the benefit of irony of burning plant matter.
The LA Times article mentions the potential for Federal Trade Commission involvement in the industry (that is, here in the US). I won’t say it’s about time, because the industry (or rather, this aspect of it) has only been around for a few years, and it’s still only worth about USD55m per year – compare that with the hundreds of billions, collectively, that the polluting industries are worth. It will be nice to see some standards, some proper accounting, and some honesty in advertising. Proper engagement by carbon-offset purchasers would be nice, too.
I have a better idea, if one is truly into off-sets. When one buys something expensive, or anything that is not a luxury, they should give five bucks to the first panhandler that they see. What’s the relationship between that new dress, or that big meal, and this man living on the streets? None. That dress didn’t put him there, that five bucks will not get him out, and that five bucks will not help the person who sewed the dress for a pittance. But if one is principally after the assuagement of guilt, I think there at least exists a moral obligation to face the ugly side of the issue. Half our problem isn’t what we buy or do, but what we are permitted to ignore.