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Or, for those tethered to reality, it's a special type of economic credit whereby a user of a particular unit of "dirty" power (i.e. that which emits carbon dioxide or other pollutant) invests in a process or activity to remove an equivalent amount of pollution from the environment—planting a tree, installing or operating a smokestack scrubber, maintaining a solar power plant. While it seems like a good idea on paper, the debate rages as to whether this is actually a good thing or whether it's just the environmental equivalent of ordering a Diet Coke with your Double Whopper. It is worth pointing out that, even if carbon offsets are a Good Thing, the limited amount of environmental remediation available compared to the massive amounts of pollution being put out risks carbon offset inflation by overselling the available amount of remediation, rendering said offsets useless and an economic black hole.
In practice, many carbon offset schemes are environmental indulgences. Only about 30% of the money spent on carbon offset programs offered by airlines actually goes into reducing emissions. The most problematic type of carbon offsets are tree-planting programs, as these don't permanently reduce emissions and may, in fact, increase them if the trees are not properly maintained and die or catch fire. In a textbook example of "perverse incentives," twenty chemical companies headquartered in Southeast Asian nations produced excess chlorofluorocarbons in order to destroy them and get extra carbon credits.
- Carbon Offsets, Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford
- Buying a Stairway to Heaven?, Real Climate
- Or worse. At least a 22 oz. Diet Coke saves you 240 Calories.
- Selling Indulgences, George Monbiot
- '30% of Carbon Offsets' Spent on Reducing Emissions, BBC
- The Problems with Carbon Offsets from Tree-Planting, David Suzuki Foundation
- UN Board Could Rein in $2.7 Billion Carbon Market, Associated Press