Carbon offsets and personal virtuousness

Here’s the opening of an article in the New York Times:

In 2002 Responsible Travel became one of the first travel companies to offer customers the option of buying so-called carbon offsets to counter the planet-warming emissions generated by their airline flights.

But last month Responsible Travel canceled the program, saying that while it might help travelers feel virtuous, it was not helping to reduce global emissions. In fact, company officials said, it might even encourage some people to travel or consume more.

A bit later, we find

For Mr. Francis of Responsible Travel, the final straw came when he noticed that carbon offsets were being offered by private jet companies and helicopter tour operators, which generate very high emissions per passenger. "The message was, €˜Don't worry, you can offset the emissions,' " he said. "But you don't really need to see Sydney from the air, do you? And you can travel in a commercial airliner."

Skepticism about carbon offsets is certainly warranted, mostly because it’s hard to verify whether the emission reduction being paid for is actually occurring.  But that’s not the objection being raised here: what the above seems to be saying is that regardless of whether the offsets work, they’re bad if they don’t cause people to fly less.  That’s nonsense.  If buying the offsets really does offset the carbon emission of flying, then it’s OK (from a carbon emission point of view) to buy the offsets and fly. In fact, not flying would then be no more “virtuous” than flying.

Let me be 100% clear about one thing: the “If” in that last paragraph is a big “If.”  It’s quite possible that offsets don’t work, in which case people shouldn’t use them.   In fact, that possibility seems quite likely to me.

What I’m objecting to (again) is the very common notion that even if things like offsets do work there’s something morally unsavory about them.  In fact, people quite often make the comparison with virtue and sin explicit, derisively referring to things like carbon offsets as “buying indulgences.”  Personally, I think that this attitude is unhelpful. When it comes to figuring out what to do about carbon emissions and climate change, all that matters is what works; there is no separate notion of “virtue” to be considered.

To be fair, the rest of the article does raise the real issues, suggesting doubt that the offsets currently on offer really do sufficiently reduce carbon emissions by the claimed amount, and claiming that ones that did do so would be priced much higher than those on offer.  I just wish we could have this discussion without mixing it all up with ill-considered moralizing.  For one thing, figuring out what works is a hard enough problem without that distraction.  For another thing, you may have noticed that people really don’t like being lectured to about their morals.  Casting the debate in simplistic moralizing terms is not likely to be politically effective, it seems to me.

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Ted Bunn

I am chair of the physics department at the University of Richmond. In addition to teaching a variety of undergraduate physics courses, I work on a variety of research projects in cosmology, the study of the origin, structure, and evolution of the Universe. University of Richmond undergraduates are involved in all aspects of this research. If you want to know more about my research, ask me!