Outlook & Opinions

Carbon Offsets

by Mike Tidwell

Global warming is our biggest environmental problem, and carbon offsets are one of our biggest barriers to a solution.

You know the idea: Let's make climate rescue painless by paying Zambian farmers not to till their soil while America continues its oil- and coal-burning binge. Carbon "sequestered" in the soil -- or in tropical trees -- at one location will "offset" carbon emitted at another.

But the concept requires absolute and permanent knowledge of human activity everywhere on Earth. Were the Zambian farmers letting the land go fallow anyway? Will they avoid tilling forever? Will the purchased forest never see a chain saw or a wildfire?

Tragically, the cap-and-trade bill passed last year by the House of Representatives allows up to 2 billion tons of carbon offsets per year for U.S. companies. This turned the bill into a joke, making it possible for carbon emissions to actually rise in America for the next two decades.

Yes, offsets are cheap. Poor farmers don't need much money to make a promise. But only a hard cap on emissions, free of offsets and trading, will actually decarbonize our economy.

Offsets are ethically troubling, as well. They allow rich countries such as the United States to avoid full responsibility for their actions. One British critic made the point with a parody site, cheatneutral.com. Here, people who cheat on their spouses can pay 2.50 British pounds (slightly less than $4) into a fund that will absolve them of guilt by sending the money to noncheaters as a reward for their fidelity. This way marital cheating can continue -- but everyone wins on paper, and everyone feels better, right?

Big cuts in carbon pollution are achievable in America, and in a cost-effective way, but only if environmental champions stop falling for offsets.

Mike Tidwell is the director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. He can be reached at mikewtidwell@gmail.com.

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