Deflecting the offset stabs

The attack on people’s voluntary purchase of carbon offsets continues. On The Economist blog:

Some of the readers last week, on and offline, were confused by the supply and demand graphs. Here is a simple way to think about it: when you consume a lot of dirty energy, and then susbsidizing clean energy elsewhere, you are sending a single price signal to the market: people are willing to spend more on energy. That’s a signal that usually increases supply. Because electricity is a traded commodity (with a number of special features, like the fact that it is very unlikely that an expensive and highly regulated “dirty” plant will be closed), this will tend to increase the overall supply of electricity; even if you add some cleaner power to the mix, it will not cover all of your additional usage.

Carbon offsets are even more lunatic less effective as a response to flying. “I am pouring tons of carbon into the air with my transportation needs, so I will therefore . . . increase the supply of electricity in Kansas” doesn’t exactly have a fine, logical ring, does it? In this case, it should be obvious to most readers that this does not work. The decision to fly marginally increases demand for flying, meaning, if enough people do it, more flights and more carbon; meanwhile, the wind farms you paid to install probably haven’t taken a single power plant offline. Net effect: more carbon. In the case of private jets, we don’t even need a marginal demand story; every time you fire up the plane, you contribute to global warming.

As I said last week, no that isn’t the case. Offset purchases wont increase net emissions. If the offsets are used to fund clean electricity, the compete with and crowd out dirty electricity. If consumers are sophisticated and purchasing offsets that have real effects (net of responses) then net emissions will fall, even in the cases The Economist blog cites.

If carbon offsets are a fraud, however, that is an issue. If trees planted in one place cause more trees uprooted in others or if trees planted do not actually offset emissions then there is an issue. However, that is currently speculation. And if it is an issue then consumer protection is warranted; not an attack on the goods themselves. Do we ban banks because loan sharks exist?

People objecting to voluntary offset purchases are against market behaviour. They don’t believe that consumers with guilt can take actions that alleviate that guilt. If it is truely symbolic, people will not keep forking out the money for it. Unless you are in the public eye, it does you no good to spend on these things unless, of course, they work.

And, in any case, offsets don’t fix the problem. When we get a collective solution it will and the guilt will be alleviated by collective action rather than private action. But really if someone wants to consume something privately should it really be stopped? Their impact is not much bigger than their impact.

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