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An Inconvenient Truth on “Carbon Offsets” March 2, 2007

Posted by federalist in Energy.

The basis for carbon offsets to absolve eco-sinners of guilt is bogus.

Carbon offsets consist of either paying someone to expend resources sequestering atmospheric carbon that would otherwise roam free (presumably trapping heat and warming the climate), or else paying someone to not emit carbon into the atmosphere that they otherwise would – typically by paying to replace a fossil-fuel energy source with a “green” energy source.

The problem with the latter “replacement” scenario is precisely that it immediately reduces consumption of fossil fuels … which reduces demand, makes them cheaper, and thereby incentivizes someone who could not afford them before to come along and burn them after all. Fossil fuels will continue to be burned until cheaper and more portable stores of energy are developed. There is no short-term penance that can change that equation.

Spending resources to capture carbon that has already been released is also dubious. The workers who are planting trees will be burning refined oil as they go about that business. Carbon injection factories will be built with metal smelted with coal and powered perhaps by natural gas. So long as our economy is powered in part by fossil fuel, you are at least indirectly burning fossil fuels anytime you consume or spend anything. In theory it may be possible to undertake net-positive carbon sequestration, but nobody has offered a calculus that fully considers the carbon emissions of every input to a practical sequestration effort.

So before we absolve our eco-upper-class of hypocrisy, we should consider that buying indulgences for eco-sin is not as easy as they would like to believe.



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