How Many Carbon Credits Does it Take to Get to Heaven?

I’m not sure whether the first person who thought up the idea of carbon credits was a Roman Catholic or not, but the similarity between purchasing credits to offset one’s own environmentally unfriendly actions seems to me to have an eerie resemblance to the penance offsets known as indulgences offered by the Catholic church. The only difference seems to be that indulgences are officially only granted to folks who are truly well-intentioned, while carbon credits can be purchased by any business or organization (and increasingly, any individual) that doesn’t want to do the real work of reducing its carbon footprint.

While the idea behind carbon credits (applying a monetary value to emissions in order to develop a market mechanism for trading them and to incentivize heavy offenders into reducing their negative ecological impact) seems at first glance to be reasonable, and even beneficial, time seems to be rendering some less than stellar performance results for the trading scheme. An April 2007 article in Financial Times claims that, “Companies and individuals rushing to go green have been spending millions on ‘carbon credit’ projects that yield few if any environmental benefits.”

As with any market, where there appears to be the potential to make a profit, there are less than honorable players aplenty. The “voluntary” carbon offset market—that is, the market for carbon credits that is unregulated and is not under the Kyoto protocol-- is often viewed as an attractive source of carbon credits because the administrative costs are lower, and there is less bureaucratic overhead. But the key defining term here is unregulated. Not all carbon credits purchased in this market actually have a positive environmental outcome. The buyer must truly beware, as indeed, some are scams.

The Financial Times does offer a helpful guide to “good carbon offsetting,” though, so if you are hoping to make up for your environmental sins, there are several tips to help you make good choices. The first one, not unlike indulgences, is that you really have to want to reduce your carbon footprint. So, don’t go looking to buy your way out of your responsibilities—only use carbon credits for those ecological grievances that you just can’t eliminate any other way.

It will be interesting to see how effective this market scheme truly is over time. It is hard to imagine that the real change that needs to happen to make a difference in the fight against global warming will happen if ecological offenders can buy credits instead of altering behaviors, processes, materials or whatever else is causing their carbon emissions. We may have consumed our way into this mess, but it’s hard to imagine we are going to consume our way out of it.

Caroline Heine

Posted at 1:00 AM, Aug 08, 2007 in Environment | Permalink | Comment