Why I never buy carbon offsets
Posted on June 16, 2012
I do a lot of air travel and only once, many years ago, did I buy carbon offsets for my trips. It recently occurred to me – why is that? I also thought I would ask friends whether they bought such offsets and, if not, why not.
There are two reasons why I do not buy carbon offsets – one is visceral and one is “rational”.
Let us start with the visceral – and therefore the more important reason. Every time I see that little button on some web site or other I cannot help but feel irritated. I see it as an attempt at inducing guilt; a way of telling me that I am somehow doing something wrong and that I need to atone for my sins by pressing that button and paying whatever is suggested as penance. This I find irritating to the point that I never click the button.
Next is the more ‘rational’ justification. Where does all the money go? How much of it is wasted in inefficiency or creamed off in overhead by organizations that are managing these programmes. And what programmes are they anyway? And how do I know they make a difference?
Now I don’t know whether my second justification is real or merely a rationalization of my visceral reaction. Whatever it is, the net result is that I don’t click that button.
Now to my survey of all of 10 friends – half involved in environmental work themselves and half not. Not one of these people – not a single one – buys carbon offsets. And the reasons offered are one or other, or both, of the same ones that I have put forward. I suspect there are many other subliminal drivers of inaction that my friends, and many others, are not conscious of or may be too polite to talk about; a fundamental lack of interest (or even disbelief) in climate change as an issue, unwillingness to spend money they don’t have to spend, a sense of ‘it’s only a drop in the ocean’, etc, etc.
My research does not seem to be unusual. A study done in 2010 suggested that only 7% of travelers offset their carbon emissions.
Re-Casting Carbon Offsets
Carbon offsets have been controversial. Some environmentalists have argued that, rather than helping, they make the problem worse by allowing people to assuage their guilt and actually travel more. This argument is clearly spurious since not many seem to feel the need to assuage that supposed guilt and, indeed, it may be the association to guilt that is itself putting so many people off. However, this position may simply reflect the addiction that many in the environmental movement still have to guilt and austerity as primary messages. This in spite of incontrovertible evidence of the abject failure of these concepts as drivers of behaviour change.
Is it time to ‘re-brand’ carbon offsets? I suggest that such re-casting is well overdue, that it can be done, and that it could lead to significant benefit to all concerned. If airlines and others were minded to bring their significant marketing skills to bear, carbon offsets could be rebranded from a guilt ridden concept that throws money into some unknown black hole to a ‘product’ that benefits both those who buy it, the business of those, like airlines, who act as distributors and, ultimately, yielding public benefit in terms of environmental enhancement.
The opportunities are there. It remains to be seen whether anyone can be bothered to take them.