Carbon offset programs: do they help or hurt?

Back in January, syndicated columnist and environmentalist George Monbiot wrote an article for the Guardian arguing that the inherent flaws in carbon offset schemes will end up doing more harm than good. Last Monday, Tom Morton, the managing director of Climate Care (a British carbon offset organization), wrote a response to Monbiot's claims in the blog section of the Guardian.

If you're not already aware of the term, the basic theory behind carbon offsetting is that it allows an individual or group to contribute to carbon absorption programs like tree-planting to offset their own emissions, thus making their activities carbon neutral.

Monbiot argued that while we have a pretty good idea of how much carbon we're releasing, calculations on the amount of carbon that offset programs absorb remain extremely inaccurate for a number of reasons. First of all, the amount of carbon that is released while planting the trees must be taken into account. Secondly, estimates on carbon absorption never assess the longterm impact the program may have on the surrounding environment. For example, planting trees in one location may stunt tree growth elsewhere. Lastly, he states that in terms of limiting climate change, emissions saved today are far more valuable than emissions saved 10 years into the future. Because of this, Monbiot does not believe we can reasonably claim to have made an honest swap of carbon.

Monbiot's second and more critical point is that in fact the most destructive effect of carbon offsetting is that it allows us to believe we can carry on polluting by purchasing absolution and complacency.

Morton, like Monbiot, believes that reducing our carbon impact as much as possible is imperative. His beliefs, however, depart from the cynical environmentalist when it comes to the impact that carbon offset programs deliver. He says that the programs allow us to offset the emissions that we can't cut out working much like a carbon trading program for individuals.

Morton goes on to dispute Monbiot's claim that the programs offer environmental complacency by citing a survey recently conducted by Climate Care which shows that over 90 percent of the respondents felt that carbon offsetting on its own was inadequate and that 70 percent felt more informed after visiting the company's website proving that carbon offsetting can play a crucial role in improving carbon literacy and help people lead low-carbon lifestyles.

[Source: Guardian]

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