A Transitions Perspective on Carbon Offsets

Those contrails contain A LOT of carbon. We have to stop doing so much of this. Image from greendiary.com.

Last week, I complained about how hard it is to take a ferry to Spain, and used that as a jumpoff point to write a somewhat rambling post about the complex ways that our unsustainable travel habits are entrenched . This week I’m going to continue on that thread, by discussing the way I ultimately and reluctantly wound up booking my travel to Valencia, namely flying. I’m going to consider if there’s any way that such an environmentally destructive form of transportation reasonably justified, particularly through the mechanism of carbon offsets.

When you really look at the data concerning the emissions generated by flying, the results are actually quite shocking. Carbon calculators differ on the exact measurements, but based on a survey of a few of the options, it seems entirely plausible that if you include the radiative forcing caused by contrails, a single round-trip transatlantic flight contributes more to climate change than an entire year of commuting 60 kilometers every day in a hummer. That means that despite my cycle commuting, preference for train travel, and quasi-veganism, my flight home for Christmas already makes me a profligate contributor to climate change, even by first-world standards. Even more depressingly, nobody appears to be working on an electric jet engine or any other form of more sustainable aviation. Apparently there is simply no way around it: Suspending human beings in the air and accelerating them to near-supersonic velocity so that they can travel across and between continents will always consume a very large amount of energy, and that energy will probably come from fossil fuels. The inevitable conclusion is that we need to stop flying so much.

This is a tough pill to swallow, particularly for progressive environmentalists such as myself. The progressive world-view tends to value travel and cultural exchange, and so while you will find most of the political left enthusiastically advocating personal sacrifices such as cycle-commuting and veganism in the name of mitigating climate change, our practice of flying around the world remains conspicuously unexamined. When the question is brought up, the answer is normally to purchase carbon offsets, which pay other people to reduce their emissions in order to negate the extra emissions you cause by flying, or driving, or any other high-carbon activity. The idea basic idea of carbon offsets is not a bad one, though some environmentalists have compared them to the papal indulgences of medieval Catholicism. I’m not going to go into all the details of that argument, but you can find a good summary of carbon offsets here. In the rest of this post, I’m going to apply a transitions perspective to the problem, and ask whether the offsetting of activities like flying can do any good in a long-term transition to a sustainable economy..

If you’ve never purchased carbon offsets before, one thing that will strike you about them is how cheap they are. I can offset each of my round-trip tickets to Toronto for about $30. This is because we’ve done such a terrible job promoting a sustainable economy so far that there are a lot of low-hanging fruit. The free distribution of energy-saving lightbulbs to people who would not ordinarly buy them, for example, is a very cheap way to cut a lot of emissions. Building renewable energy infrastructure, particularly in the developing world, is another popular option. The good news about this is that it means that it is possible for a lot of people to be able to afford to offset. The bad news is that if all goes well, carbon offsets will eventually mean that the world is full of energy-saving lightbulbs and wind turbines, making it much harder to offset emissions from our flights. At that point, offsets are going to get much more expensive, because we will have to pay other people to change their lifestyles in order to accommodate ours.

On the one hand, a big pool of free money available for projects to install sustainable infrastructure that wouldn’t ordinarily be installed is definitely a very useful way to encourage a transition to a more sustainable economy. Niches for new technologies to develop before they are economically competitive are a very important part of any transition, and ideally carbon offsets should provide a ready supply of funding for engineers and entrepreneurs working on low-carbon technology. Once these innovations are sufficiently developed, carbon offsets can provide a powerful incentive for their adoption.

But on the other hand, a transition to a more sustainable economy must ultimately change more than just infrastructures and technologies. It must also change habits. The only reason that citizens of developed countries can all continue to fly around the world while offsetting their emissions is that there is a huge mass of much less wealthy people on Earth who emit far less than we do. But if the situation of these people improves (as it should), then this will no longer be the case. If the entire population of India suddenly has the money to fly to islands in the Indian Ocean for vacations, and if these people are in the habit of offsetting, then the price of carbon offsets will skyrocket. Given the very high emission generated by flight, the only possible way to avoid climate catastrophe is to make sure that not very many people fly. Currently this is accomplished by economic disparity. First-world climate activists therefore have two possible choices in the long term: stop flying so much, or keep the poor down. No amount of carbon offseting will change that.

The dilemma here is that while carbon offsets can provide an incentive to make technological systems more sustainable, they provide an active disincentive for people to make changes to their daily lives. And both things are required if we’re going to stave off climate catastrophe. The only solution to the dilemma that I can see is the absolute commitment of first-world consumers to offset their emissions, regardless of how expensive the offsets become. That will force people to change their habits when they can no longer afford to offset them.

Based on this, I can offer three rules that we should ideally follow around offsets:

  1. If you must fly, drive, eat meat, or do anything else that emits a lot of carbon, then you must offset. You should commit to offset all your emissions to the point that your net carbon impact is around 1.5 tons CO2 per year (which should be our goal by 2050, according to this guy). Persuade others to do the same.
  2. Maintain that commitment regardless of how expensive offsetting becomes in the future. If you can no longer afford to offset your lifestyle, then you have to change it. No exceptions.
  3. Accept that this will mean your flying days are numbered. The same thing probably goes for eating meat every night of the week, or commuting by car. Plan accordingly.

This post has focused mainly on flying, but it applies to our first-world lifestyles more generally. First world consumers in particular have an absolute ethical duty to fight against climate change, since they are the cause of so much of it and they will be among the last to feel its effects. This means we need to choose smart strategies not only to alleviate the effects of our lifestyles in the short term, but also to wean ourselves off of these lifestyles in the long-term. Carbon offsetting is one possible way to do that, but only if it is applied with both intelligence and commitment.

I have to confess that I’m being a bit hypocritical with this post, as I’ve never bought offsets before. But I’m going to start right now, with that trip to Valencia. So should you.