Saturday, September 01, 2007

Making up for carbon emissions

Saturday, 09/01/07

Even on the environment, people get what they pay forToday's Topic: Making up for carbon emissions

Our View

It is probably a sad commentary on modern society that even on something like a clean environment, rather than do the hard part, people think they can just pay for it.
A trend toward purchasing "carbon offsets" is a recent example.

The Washington Post recently reported on how organizations are popping up, offering people a chance to "offset" their polluting ways, such as offsetting the drive to work in a gas-fueled car by paying into a program where clean steps — like planting trees — can be purchased.

If someone can write a check and know with certainty that they are helping the environment equal to their polluting ways, more power to them. It appears many organizations offering offsets for purchase have the best of motives. But scientists are beginning to question whether all of those groups deliver on exactly what they're selling. For example, if someone uses a credit card to pay for a $100 offset, how can they know for certain that the carbon offset will really be exactly what they paid for? The process, though well intended, could very well become just a feel-good way to "help" the environment without creating any real benefit.

The concept of offsets is certainly not limited to individual purchases. The theory is discussed in broader policy terms, where regions, even countries, could buy and trade credits on carbon emissions. But putting a specific dollar amount on offsets can be hard to get down to an exact science. There seems to be little doubt that offset sellers do attempt to apply the funds toward the noble purpose of cleaning up the environment, like putting the funds into a wind power program. But if people feel a purchase gives them license to then drive guilt-free, it leaves the question of precisely how much good is being done. It also leads to the question of whether they feel they can drive even more since they've paid for an offset.

Fortunately, the practice has gotten the attention of Congress. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., has requested that the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Trade Commission consider setting standards for such offset operations. As long as the concept is sound, and as long as there are good-faith efforts at work, the premise should be pursued. But it doesn't take long to see that such efforts could fall short of what is promised, and it doesn't take long to see that such purchases could be fodder for abuse.

According to the Post report, the Sierra Club suggests that instead of spending $100 on a carbon offset, it would be better to invest $100 in something like fluorescent light bulbs. Conservation and common sense should factor more into people's thinking than the belief that a cleaner earth is possible just by writing a check. There is actual work involved in improving the environment.

Putting money into a good idea is one thing. Actually cleaning up the planet can be something else.

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