Green-lighting negligence: The ethical dilemma of carbon offsets

Opinion by Jasmine Sun
April 13, 2018, 5:00 a.m.

Do you ever feel trapped in your tediously faithful relationship? Ever longed to cheat on your partner — but sans the guilt and resulting consequences? If so, CheatNeutral is for you. CheatNeutral is a service that seeks to balance the total amount of infidelity in the world by letting cheating partners pay a fee to fund someone else’s faithfulness, effectively offsetting your own moral wrongdoing. Super appealing, right?


Unfortunately, CheatNeutral never existed, and the website has now been replaced with a blog for e-cigarettes. Still, this satirical website shines a humorous light on the ethical dubiousness of carbon offsetting, a sustainability solution that encourages individuals and corporations to reduce their carbon footprint by investing proportionally in environmental conservation — often renewable energy projects, green technology development or habitat protection.


Carbon offsetting is incredibly popular, and it’s used by companies from Costco to Apple to neutralize their carbon impact. Microsoft is the second-biggest corporate buyer of clean energy today, and Google recently announced its success in offsetting 100 percent of its data-center energy use with renewable investments. Although this all seems like good news, I’m concerned about the proposition that consumerist first-worlders can simply pay away their environmental sins.


First of all, carbon offsetting may license companies to increase their emissions and overall consumption. On a psychological level, entrusting third parties to neutralize your environmental impact absolves individuals of guilt and makes them less attentive to reducing excess consumption. Furthermore, companies that proudly proclaim carbon neutrality through offsets happily evade public scrutiny. Google may have achieved “net operational carbon emissions [of] zero” and earned an ‘A’ rating from Greenpeace, but they’ve also nearly doubled their gross carbon emissions between 2011 and 2016 from 1.7 to 2.9 million metric tons. And this was no accident: Google also contributed $699,195 to Senate climate deniers James Inhofe and Darrell Issa in 2014, casting doubt on the integrity of their environmental commitments. Oops.


Furthermore, it’s worth noting that most clean energy projects take place in developing nations, where the carbon reduction possible per marginal dollar is much higher. Initially, this seems benign. It offers a pathway for wealthy countries to subsidize renewables in places where local politicians prioritize rapid development over environmental concerns. At the same time, this perpetuates portrayals of the West as philanthropist and savior to the Global South and gives American multinationals even more political leverage over foreign economies. It also exports the responsibility of managing unintended consequences, a pattern revealed by the toxic waste dumps caused by Western nations’ attempts to outsource electronic waste recycling to China.


More troubling, though, is the reduced transparency that comes with exporting environmental responsibility. For instance, it’s difficult to prove the ‘additionality’ of a project: absent the offset, would local governments be investing in renewables anyway? Does protecting one acre of rainforest mean another gets chopped down? Also, receiving outside funds creates a free rider problem, deterring governments from green investment if the private sector can assume the cost. In the worst cases, carbon offset brokers may even be scams, engaging in fraudulent practices like ‘double selling’ projects or refusing external audits. Clearly, the promise of achieving equivalent emissions reductions is far from guaranteed.


I’m not suggesting we cast off carbon offsetting altogether. Emissions are an inevitable side effect of a prosperous economy, so offsetting can mitigate harm once opportunities for domestic reduction are exhausted. The National Resources Defense Council provides a helpful guide to effective neutralization, encouraging individuals to ensure their offsets are real, verified, enforceable and additional. While this is a good starting point, real accountability needs to operate at the level of institutions. Companies engaging in offsets need to publicize their process for procurement and investment. Standards for calculating the carbon footprint of a flight or a computer server should be standardized and externally audited. The government, including the Government Accountability Office and Federal Trade Commission Green Guides, should increase federal oversight and tighten the definition for carbon offsets.


And most importantly, given the uncertainties, offsets must remain a last resort strategy for sustainability.


The world has entered a new era of ‘conscious capitalism’ where it has become fashionable to acknowledge profit’s negative externalities. But tackling urgent, irreversible climate change requires more than a social media shout-out or hasty CSR plan. It means reckoning with the difficult truth that we need structural shifts in the way we consume and produce, that we can’t save the world through unfettered growth. You might be able to buy your way out of guilt — but you can’t buy time.


Contact Jasmine Sun at jasminesun ‘at’


Jasmine Sun '21 is a sociology major from the greater Seattle area. She's fascinated by the future of cities, education and digital media. When not trying and failing to catch up on her Goodreads Reading Challenge, she nurtures her caffeine addiction and hosts a podcast on civic innovation.

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