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General · 16th April 2007
Carrie Saxifrage
At a cozy little party one winter night, I sat curled on the sofa as a bearded man in a hand knit vest and rubber Birkenstocks described how it wasn’t right that those people who have for decades continued with their high-consumption lifestyle could just wave some cash at global warming and feel clean.

For years, we environmentalists had been warning them, time and time again, that they were destroying entire ecosystems and he was gleeful that “they” finally have to pay attention to “us,” because the impacts are so direct and dangerous, like ferocious storms and rising insurance rates. He saw it as payback for carbon sins.

“We’ve got ‘em!,” he said. “They can’t continue with life as usual just because they paid a puny amount of money!”

Okay, so offsets are no substitute for Real Action. Real Action in this case would mean actual reduction of one’s carbon footprint and the consistent application of political pressure toward the regulatory resolution that a problem of this scale demands. Real Action is essential, the first and second necessary steps in our attempts to turn the ship around and save human existence on the planet.

Offsets and the Foot Print
Offsets support the Real Action approach. To buy offsets, you have to use a carbon calculator. This inevitably gets you thinking.

How did that one family trip to the east coast account for a third of my year’s direct carbon emissions?

What is the “industrial support” that takes up two thirds of my yearly emissions?

If transportation is my largest direct contributor, how can I move myself around more efficiently?

My sister’s family owns both a Prius and a Suburban. When they’re in the Prius, the screen display gives a constant read of their miles per gallon. Air conditioner on, milage down. It turns into a game.

Now its 45 mgp! Oops, 35.

Look a’ me now, its 55! In the Suburban, which they use only to drive up to ski on a shrinking glacier, they never think about how their car usage affects milage because there is nothing in the car to trigger such thoughts. They laugh at the inconsistency of the whole thing, but they won’t be buying another Suburban.

Using a carbon calculator is like tuning into the Prius screen. You become attuned to your emissions, and you begin to make adjustments.

Offsets as a Political Statement
My willingness to pay more of the true cost of my energy consumption, instead of offloading huge costs to younger generations, is a political statement.

It creates a revenue stream that politicians can capture in the form of a carbon tax. Most European countries have a carbon tax, because it can discourage destructive activity and subsidize solutions.

Taxation is government’s strongest tool, the kind that can really work for global warming. The personal offset market yells: “Bring on the carbon tax because we’re already paying it voluntarily!”

Can You Really Buy a Ton of Carbon?
Honestly, I doubt it. But we can roughly correlate fossil fuel consumption to payment for a solution. Those of us who have the funds to destroy the atmosphere by flying, driving, heating and consuming are the ones who should pay for the solutions.

If we have enough money to do those things, we have enough to pay offsets. Much or most of the damage will be felt by persons who can’t afford to fly, drive and consume, and they can’t afford offsets either.

Many offset vendors provide financial support to solar and wind power and industrial efficiency measures. These power sources decrease the likelihood of new “dirty” power sources being built.

Some vendors go to off-the-grid areas and replace fossil fuel technologies with renewable technologies, like replacing diesel pumps with treadle pumps for irrigation or kerosene lamps with solar lights.

These offsets seem most likely to provide the direct ton of prevented carbon emission promised.

Offsets Just Aren’t That Much
Happily, offsets aren’t very expensive. A flight from Vancouver to Toronto results in 3.3 tons of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which costs about CN$65 to offset. (That’s at the average ton offset price of about CN$17/ton. Offsets range from CN$6 to CN$40 for the movie star model). For the average Canadian who emits about 20 tons of greenhouse gases each year, the yearly offset price would be only CN$340.

Compared to the peril of global warming, it just isn’t much.

The Stern Report, commissioned by the British Government, estimates that the cost of dealing with global warming’s consequences will be 5 to 20 times the cost of prevention.

That accounts only for dollars, not for human and other suffering. You can look at it like paying $340/year now instead of you or your children paying $6,800/year later.

And About Those Sinners
Personally, I agree with the bearded man at the party that people’s willingness to change only when faced with direct impacts is an annoying and perhaps deadly attribute. But this reaction is a judgment, not a strategy for change. We all have motes in our eyes, large and small, and offsets are a way to both act now and to clear our vision.

Next: About the Offset Vendor Market: What Are You Buying?