Carbon offsets, which let you pay some money to help fund climate-friendly projects, get the love-hate treatment in today’s New York Times.

At issue: are they for real, or just some sort of gimmick?  By contributing money to an offset program, are you really expiating your climate sins, or are you just buying meaningless indulgences?

The article finds lots of quotes from people who are skeptical about offsets.  But to me, this is mostly a manufactured controversy—an attempt to find a green schism where none really exists.

As far as I can tell, there’s a middle ground on the issue that most people already agree on:  namely, that carbon offsets are simultaneously worthwhile and a gimmick.  A worthwhile gimmick, if you will.

  • First off:  voluntary carbon offsets can’t be a complete solution to global warming.  Not now, not ever.  They’re completely voluntary, so only a fraction of us will ever sign up.

    But as far as I can tell, almost nobody’s actually claiming that offsets are a panacea.  Except for a handful of true believers, perhaps, most folks see voluntary offsets as small piece of a much larger puzzle (or, perhaps, a solution in microcosm).

    Either way, “supporters” and “critics” agree:  voluntary offsets alone won’t save the climate.  No controversy there, really.  (Sorry, Times.)

    As for the projects themselves:  sure, not every one is well designed; a few are somewhat shifty; some even spark controversy, and rightly so. Still, the large majority of these projects—building wind farms, or replanting forests, or weatherizing people’s homes—seem to be the sorts of things we really should be doing anyway, no matter what kind of climate policy is in effect.

    Of course, a few folks such as the redoubtable Charles Komonoff, point out that there may be a downside to offsets:

    …[B]y suggesting there’s an easy way out, [carbon offsets] blunt public support for what will really be needed in the long run: …a binding limit on emissions or a tax on the fuels that generate greenhouse gases.

    In the abstract, I’ve got some sympathy for this point of view.  And I’ve got tons of respect for Komonoff.  But in practice, it seems to me that the large majority of people and organizations who buy carbon offsets would be delighted with a more aggressive climate policy.

    Of course, I’ve got no actual data to back this up.  But most of the people I know who’ve contributed to an offset program are pretty deep greenies.  It’s just that given the current policy environment, they view the purchase of an offset as the most effective way of “voting with their wallet” to stop climate change.

    In other words, buying carbon offsets is more a sign of support for progressive climate policy than a substitute for it. Some people might be buying indulgences, and continuing to sin; but most of us are just trying to do some good.

    But that brings up an interesting question: are offsets really the most cost-effective way to curb climate change?  Here, I may disagree with some folks: while I think that offsets are nifty, I don’t think they’re the best buy for the climate.

    For what it’s worth, my spare time and money goes to politcs and climate advocacy. To me, the real challenge is to turn climate offsets from a peculiar niche market into a major component of regional and national policy. Voluntary offsets are nice, and have their place in showing us that climate stewardship is both possible and economically feasible; and I expect that their use may grow as climate policy evolves.  But  for my money, the first step for protecting the actual climate is to change the political climate.

    Still, that’s no “schism” over the merits of climate offsets.  It’s just a difference of emphasis.  And if the Times wants to look for actual controversy over climate policy, there are much, much more important things to look at.