Editorial: Are Carbon Offsets Effective?

Let's take a look at an example. Imagine you fly your private jet back and forth while buying offsets, until you have enough offsets to equal a windmill.

You don't pay for the whole windmill, but subsidize them for every ton of carbon that would have been required to create that much electricity from coal -- you're not really funding a windmill to be built, the funding is a combination of your offsets, perhaps government subsidies, and what the windmill will earn in the market -- though you do get credit for all the energy the windmill produces.

What happens and who takes credit?

  • The folks who built the windmill take credit for building a windmill.
  • The green company that uses the actual power generated by the windmill feel that they are being green since they're not burning oil.
  • You bought the offset credits, so you also take credit for powering your jet with that wind energy.
  • There's plenty of demand for electricity, so perhaps somewhere else someone else burns the coal. And of course, you've already burned the jet fuel.

Your subsidy helps offset the cost of windmills, and carbon offset money will give a slight advantage to renewables. If you represent a nonpolitical corporation -- say an event planner for a non-green event -- this is a nice tidbit deserving a little thanks. But if you're one of my friends, if you're trying to fight global warming so the next generation will have a decent planet to live on, please put your money where it will do more good!

But you you still burned through that jet fuel, and nowhere in the process of building a windmill do you actually remove that carbon from the atmosphere. Some subsidies are going to planting trees that will wind up as plantations; other subsidies are going to horrific factory farms that obviously should be required to deal with their own methane and not have your hard earned dollars pay to clean up their pollution. If it's your money, forget offsetting and donate it where you feel it will do the most good!