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NYT Examines Carbon Offset "Gimmick":

Today's New York Times looks into the debate over carbon offsets, and questions whether claims of "carbon-neutrality" are just a "gimmick."

is the carbon-neutral movement just a gimmick?

On this, environmentalists aren't neutral, and they don't agree. Some believe it helps build support, but others argue that these purchases don't accomplish anything meaningful — other than giving someone a slightly better feeling (or greener reputation) after buying a 6,000-square-foot house or passing the million-mile mark in a frequent-flier program. In fact, to many environmentalists, the carbon-neutral campaign is a sign of the times — easy on the sacrifice and big on the consumerism. . . .

"The worst of the carbon-offset programs resemble the Catholic Church's sale of indulgences back before the Reformation," said Denis Hayes, the president of the Bullitt Foundation, an environmental grant-making group. "Instead of reducing their carbon footprints, people take private jets and stretch limos, and then think they can buy an indulgence to forgive their sins."

"This whole game is badly in need of a modern Martin Luther," Mr. Hayes added.

Some environmental campaigners defend this marketplace as a legitimate, if imperfect, way to support an environmental ethic and political movement, even if the numbers don't all add up.

dearieme:
Whoever first came up with the analogy to "indulgences" deserves one of the Nobel Prizes.
4.29.2007 1:09pm
cirby (mail):
Let's see...

If I cut back on energy use (compact fluorescents, AC thermostat at 82, ride a motorcycle that gets 40 MPG), all I get is a lower energy bill and less carbon dioxide generation (that will, as far as I can see, not do a damn thing for at least 50-60 years), along with a continuation of the series of lectures in how I need to cut back even more.

If a rich "Greenie" buys carbon offsets, they get to keep things the way they are, are much more comfortable, get to fly around the world in private jets, and get to preach to me about how I need to cut back even more.

How's this work out for me, now?
4.29.2007 1:35pm
Andrew Okun:
Whoever first came up with the analogy to "indulgences" deserves one of the Nobel Prizes.


Exactly the opposite. Criticism of whether carbon offsets work is fine, but this "indulgences" garbage pretty much says "don't you dare use the free market to try to solve any problems." It's as though actions somehow don't count unless they involve personal suffering, as though greenies can't be right about energy consumption until they live in caves.

Well that moral calculus can be applied to a whole range of "indulgences."

You can't advocate that children should be educated if you pay teachers to take on your parental responsibilities.

Don't be talking about child care if you hire babysitters.

Nurses and nursing homes are "indulgences" that allow people to pretend they are taking care of their parents, when they are just using dollars so they can continue spending time doing other things.

It is not some great economic insight worthy of a Nobel, it is a nifty political shiv that can be used to confuse the argument for another year or two.

Indulgences were scandalous because you can't, according to their critics, buy salvation with money. Offsets are an effort to reduce carbon emissions on earth, not buy virtue or a place in heaven. Reducing carbon emissions is something you _can_ do with money. And you can do it without passing a law and without costing anybody else anything. It is greens putting their money where their mouths are without costing anybody else a dime.

So why all the flak about it? Because enviros are arguing tiresome things and their critics are always looking for reasons to ignore them. For years, the most common attack has been making out that environmentalism is a religion, which is why yall are so transported with delight at the indulgences idea.

The wierd thing is, the attack on enviros seems to be leading the American right (nobody in other countries, it's odd) to discard free market ideas in bulk. Greens buying offsets? Meaningless, because offsets are unregulated so who knows what they really represent in carbon reductions. Reduce carbon use with cap and trade or a carbon tax, ideas pushed on greens for years by the economically minded? No! Terrible! Instead, (per Lomborg) we need to pick winners. Government should directly fund green technology research. Greens buy other green products, like Priuses or CF lightbulbs? Chortle, chortle. It's just about personal virtue and not reality. In the last two or three years, I've only heard one conservative praise the idea of trying to solve an environmental problem using free markets and that was Sen. Arnold Vinick, R-Cal, in his presidential debate. He's fictional! What gives?

What gives in my view is that every sentence of criticism of enviros coming from the American right should be read to include "which is irrational and so they should be ignored when they claim something about global warming or another environmental issue."

Of course, after all that, it was an enviro quoted in the times this morning. Don't mind that he panned offsets, if that's what he thinks, because they may very well be useless, but his adoption of the imagery was a mistake.
4.29.2007 2:33pm
Bottomfish (mail):
Apparently the consensus these days in the VC is that global warming is caused by CO2 and other greenhouse gases. But consider the following:

Land use changes in the United States are responsible for a significant portion of the country's temperature increase over the past five decades, says a University of Maryland study published in this week's issue of the journal Nature. The findings suggest that land use changes are responsible for more of the rise in global temperatures than scientists previously had thought, say authors Eugenia Kalnay and Ming Cai, scientists in the university's department of meteorology...

"Our estimates are that land use changes in the United States since the 1960s resulted in a rise of over 0.2 degrees F in the mean surface temperature, an estimate twice as high as those of previous studies," said Kalnay, a professor of meteorology. "We expect to extend our study to obtain global results later this year, but these findings for the United States already suggest that land use changes may account for between 1/3 and 1/2 of the observed surface global warming."


(See www.newdesk.umd.edu/scitech/release.cfm?ArticleID=761)

So maybe carbon offsets by themselves won't do the trick. We need land-use offsets likewise.
4.29.2007 2:39pm
Andrew Okun:
My remark about not having heard conservatives praise the use of markets to solve environmental problems was incorrect. Just a few days ago, I read something by a professor, Adler I believe it was, to the effect that

The idea of markets for carbon emissions is a good one. If carbon dioxide emissions need to be reduced, it makes sense to achieve those reductions in the most cost-effective manner possible. Carbon credits can also enable those with stronger environmental preferences to take additional voluntary action, such as celebrity carbon offset purchasers have purported to do.

The trouble is, this Professor Adler noted, that it is hard to confirm the environmental value of an offset, which is after all, a piece of paper on which anything can be printed. The same is true of any market for pieces of paper, such as the stock market, the bond market, the futures markets, charitable giving and the insurance trade. Those markets have grown fine with the addition of a range of public and private safeguards and have great value and so can this one?

(Are these Prof. Adlers related?)
4.29.2007 2:47pm
Bottomfish (mail):
Of course, if we don't know how much additional CO2 leads to a given degree increase in global average temperature, offsets are meaningless. And in fact we don't know, and this is why offsets are meaningless.
4.29.2007 3:02pm
jimbino (mail):
Try as I might, it would be hard for me, a childfree guy, to make as large and heavy a claim to a share of world resources as the breeders around me do. Breeders need to be forced to either obtain a Green card for each their prospective kids or to give each kid a portion of their own. Until that is done, it will be a cold day in Houston before I conserve or even recycle!
4.29.2007 3:14pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
"Exactly the opposite. Criticism of whether carbon offsets work is fine, but this "indulgences" garbage pretty much says "don't you dare use the free market to try to solve any problems."

No they are exactly indulgences because they serve to relieve the feeling of sin for the purchaser. We don't need carbon offsets now because the science behind AGW is too weak to justify the need to reduce carbon from fossil fuels. (The rest of the carbon circulates as part of the natural carbon cycle.) Moreover the "cap and trade" program to reduce pollution should be applied at the level of the large source term, not the individual consumer. Finally individual carbon offsets are so small, I can't see how they will have any substantial effect on atmospheric co2 concentration. How can they when the biggest sources of increase in carbon emission come from India and China. Are they buying carbon offsets?
4.29.2007 3:31pm
Andrew Okun:
Of course, if we don't know how much additional CO2 leads to a given degree increase in global average temperature, offsets are meaningless. And in fact we don't know, and this is why offsets are meaningless.

It is incorrect to say we don't know. Any number predicted or measured by a physical science has a degree of uncertainty. In the case of predicted temperature rise to be caused by the amount of CO2 we are putting in the atmosphere now and in the coming decades, the uncertainty is very large, but there are predictions and measurements and they fall within a range. It is very unlikely to be +20 C and it is unlikely to be negative, zero or negligible.

The number is very uncertain but it is good enough to make some decisions and take some actions. An analogy ... you're in a car and the driver seems a little drunk and mentions he has been drinking. You lack the equipment to measure his BAC and it could very well be that it is low and he is quite capable of driving ... or he could be stomped and will get you all killed. Your guess as to his BAC and driving ability is highly, highly uncertain, but not random and your decision to walk home or trade places with the driver is not meaningless. Earlier decisions to convince him to leave a tumbler of scotch unfinished or to wait an extra 10 minutes before driving are even more uncertain in their value, but definitely not meaningless.

In the case of offsets, an individual decision to buy is seemingly infinitesimal in result. When compounded with the uncertainty in the atmospheric effect, it may seem meaningless but... (a) One buyer can calculate that he is doing what he can and that, if others do what they can, the aggregate effect will not be meaningless (b) as an early buyer, she is buying not only the offset itself, but also the early development of a market in offsets. Given the striking effect Prius buyers have had, it is not a bad calculation (c) by voluntarily acting and encouraging others to do the same, he could be driving the response to the CO2 issue toward private sector solutions, FWIW and (d) by helping create this new market, she could drive debate and perception in the public mind. Certainly our little debate is being driven by people buying offsets, putting AGW on table here, so I daresay that is succeeding.

You could argue that offsets, even if they can be shown to work as claimed, are by themselves not even close to a solution to the problem. You'd find a lot of enviros agreeing with you.
4.29.2007 3:33pm
Andrew Okun:
No they are exactly indulgences because they serve to relieve the feeling of sin for the purchaser.

This is simply false. It is simultaneously an insulting and unsubstantiable and wrong claim about the mindset of purchasers and and a veiled refusal to accept that the purchasers can rationally conclude that their purchase could have an earthly effect. The value of an offset is arguable but it is not unarguably zero, which is the minimum conclusion necessary for it to be a concrete criticism. Instead it is itself a religious criticism ... "you aren't suffering enough to feel good about yourself for your purchase." The buyers are not trying to suffer or feel good about themselves, they are trying to act to create or avoid a consequence.

We don't need carbon offsets now because the science behind AGW is too weak to justify the need to reduce carbon from fossil fuels. (The rest of the carbon circulates as part of the natural carbon cycle.)

Unlike the indulgence thing, this is a legitimate criticism. It is wrong, in my view. I think the science is good enough. So do the buyers of offsets. Do this thought experiment. Ask yourself, "if I was completely convinced by the science of the need to reduce carbon emissions by a range of methods, what would I think of offsets?" Is your answer about action and consequence? Or is it about virtue and sacrifice?

Moreover the "cap and trade" program to reduce pollution should be applied at the level of the large source term, not the individual consumer.

Um, not sure what you are getting at. Where cap and trade is being applied, that is what is happening. Offsets have no relation to cap and trade, as they don't involve a cap, except when the offsets are used to fund purchase of credits. That is merely a pooling of funds, but the effect is applied to the large source.


Finally individual carbon offsets are so small, I can't see how they will have any substantial effect on atmospheric co2 concentration. How can they when the biggest sources of increase in carbon emission come from India and China. Are they buying carbon offsets?


By itself, an individual offset won't. Pooled, they could. They are not an answer to carbon emissions increases in India and China, but they never claimed to be. For someone convinced that AGW is a problem, an offset is one small thing they can do now, not a global solution. Don't forget that aside from the offset itself, the buyer is getting (a) an exemplary effect (b) a market creation and support effect and (c) a political effect. You and I are debating the issue, prompted by some folks' buying and selling of offsets, on a conservative blog, aren't we? Seems to me like an offset buyer somewhere has gotten her money's worth.
4.29.2007 3:50pm
Avatar (mail):
The real problem is that trading the carbon reductions we're already doing back and forth doesn't address the actual problem - that, if AGW proponents are correct (which is far from certain), we need much more drastic cuts in order to actually have any salutary effect. 100% of the world's population can't get rich off playing the stock market alone - at the end of the day, actual economic activity must take place!

The image problem, though, is that environmental groups aren't calling for increased investment in offset programs, because at the end of the day, there's only so much offsetting activity that can take place with current technology - and that's not too bloody much compared with the scale of the AGW problem. It is not, repeat, not a solution in the long-term scale, nor is it a solution that's open to everybody.

And, of course, you have the same problems highlighted above - a lot of carbon offset trading isn't reflective of actual reductions in emissions; you end up with a certificate saying "you've reduced the emissions, yay!" but that doesn't necessarily mean that those emissions were actually reduced.
4.29.2007 4:40pm
Fury:
Cirby writes:


If I cut back on energy use (compact fluorescents, AC thermostat at 82, ride a motorcycle that gets 40 MPG), all I get is a lower energy bill and less carbon dioxide generation (that will, as far as I can see, not do a damn thing for at least 50-60 years), along with a continuation of the series of lectures in how I need to cut back even more.


Now I feel bad. I went and burned off the dead grass on ~2 1/2 acres. Well, at least I didn't need to start the fire with some old tires I have laying around.

Off to start the charcoal in the grill...
4.29.2007 6:19pm
TMac (mail):
Fury,

Why not forego lighting the charcoal and sell the result as a carbon offset.
4.29.2007 6:33pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
"In the case of predicted temperature rise to be caused by the amount of CO2 we are putting in the atmosphere now and in the coming decades, the uncertainty is very large, but there are predictions and measurements and they fall within a range. It is very unlikely to be +20 C and it is unlikely to be negative, zero or negligible."

You are applying linear open-loop thinking to a non-linear closed-loop problem. The co2 effect could even be negative (although not likely) as discussed by Professor Nir J. Shaviv at Hebrew University. The climate sensitivity (response of average global temperature to co2 doubling) is only weakly driven by co2 and depends primarily on amplification by water vapor, a positive feedback. Increased water vapor leads to increased cloud cover and a possible negative feedback. We don't understand the cloud physics well enough and we can't model it accurately because the cloud physics occurs at a much smaller scale than the resolution of the GCM models. That's why they must use parameterization to handle the cloud effects as discussed by McGuffie in his book A Climate Modelling Primer. The problem with parameterization is it must use empirical constants that might not apply at higher co2 levels as pointed out by the famous physicist Freeman Dyson.

Summary. At this point we cannot say with confidence that the actual climate sensitivity isn't negligible. You should note that the interval of predictions for climate sensitivity is 1.5-4.5 C, but no probability is assigned to this interval in the IPCC report. For good reason, they don't know the uncertainty of the cloud physics parameterizations.
4.29.2007 6:44pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
"This is simply false. It is simultaneously an insulting and unsubstantiable and wrong claim about the mindset of purchasers and [and] a veiled refusal to accept that the purchasers can rationally conclude that their purchase could have an earthly effect."

The purchasers can't rationally conclude their purchases have an earthly effect any more than the purchasers of the original kind of indulgences. Of course they might very well believe it in the way people believe in UFOs and ESP. I think the analogy is apt as environmentalism in its extreme forms functions as a substitute for conventional religion. There are lots of things environmental scientists understand and understand well, it's just that global warming isn't one of them.
4.29.2007 6:55pm
Ken Arromdee:
It's as though actions somehow don't count unless they involve personal suffering, as though greenies can't be right about energy consumption until they live in caves.

One factor is that environmentalists do demand that other people go through personal suffering. Once they've brought personal suffering into the equation, then the question of "why can they do it just by spending money" becomes relevant.
4.29.2007 7:51pm
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
The wierd thing is, the attack on enviros seems to be leading the American right (nobody in other countries, it's odd) to discard free market ideas in bulk. Greens buying offsets? Meaningless, because offsets are unregulated so who knows what they really represent in carbon reductions. Reduce carbon use with cap and trade or a carbon tax, ideas pushed on greens for years by the economically minded? No! Terrible! Instead, (per Lomborg) we need to pick winners. Government should directly fund green technology research. Greens buy other green products, like Priuses or CF lightbulbs? Chortle, chortle. It's just about personal virtue and not reality. In the last two or three years, I've only heard one conservative praise the idea of trying to solve an environmental problem using free markets and that was Sen. Arnold Vinick, R-Cal, in his presidential debate. He's fictional! What gives?
The right isn't monolithic, just like the left isn't. I think that carbon offsetting is silly because there is no real way to validate it and make it work. But I also think that picking winners is just as bad, if not worse. The government has an abysmal record at doing such, and our government is as good as any at that (i.e. governments in general are horrible at it).

But I think it silly to suggest that carbon offsetting right now, absent firm legal caps, is a market answer to anything productive. Rather, since they can't be verified, and have no real economic value, their trading is not a true market.
4.30.2007 12:28am
Insignificant Dallasite:

An analogy ... you're in a car and the driver seems a little drunk and mentions he has been drinking. You lack the equipment to measure his BAC and it could very well be that it is low and he is quite capable of driving ... or he could be stomped and will get you all killed. Your guess as to his BAC and driving ability is highly, highly uncertain, but not random and your decision to walk home or trade places with the driver is not meaningless. Earlier decisions to convince him to leave a tumbler of scotch unfinished or to wait an extra 10 minutes before driving are even more uncertain in their value, but definitely not meaningless.


Let's see if we can make your analogy fit better. You don't know if the driver has been drinking, or if the smell of scotch is from the scotch-scented cologne that he is know to wear. You have no way of measuring his BAC, but you have a track record of incorrectly assuming that he is drunk. You have only one arm and no legs, so walking is not an option and in order to drive yourself you will have to completely rebuild the car (with only on arm).

Al Gore says that Nuclear Power as a substitute for coal presents "unreasonable" proliferation risks. Considering that China and Russia already have nuclear weapons and the UN is letting Iran build reactors already, is the proliferation risk less or greater than the risk of human extinction?
4.30.2007 12:24pm
Andrew Okun:
One factor is that environmentalists do demand that other people go through personal suffering. Once they've brought personal suffering into the equation, then the question of "why can they do it just by spending money" becomes relevant.

Not the case. Environmentalists usually, and particularly with regard to climate change, think substantive changes can be made without a huge cost or a huge change in standard of living and that, in any case, we will suffer more if we don't make some changes. It is opponents of environmentalists who claim, each and every time a regulation, tax or law is proposed, that it will cause massive deprivation and suffering. They seem to be wrong every time.

And relevant to the "indulgences" question, environmentalists don't seek suffering and sacrifice as a form of proof of virtue. The idea is seatbelts, not cilices.
4.30.2007 1:18pm
carbonite:
Free carbon offsets:

http://www.freecarbonoffsets.com
5.1.2007 2:06pm