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Carbon Offsets and Guilt Relief
March 2, 2007

By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
contributor to

These days, if you're an environmentalist who is guilty of polluting, exploiting, or otherwise abusing the planet, you can actually buy your way out of the guilt-ridden mess.

Apparently, all you have to do is calculate a rough estimate of the carbon you produce, fork over some of that green stuff in your wallet to a company or organization that says it will invest your cash in an eco-friendly activity, wave your official certificate in the air, and voila! your conscience is cleared.

It is the hottest liberal scheme of late—carbon offsets.

One of the most common carbon offsets involves the planting of trees. But there are a few problems with the eco-plan:

Trees planted in one place may inhibit trees growing in another place (e.g., the planting of new trees could cause a stream that feeds an existing forest to dry up.)

Trees take a long time to grow and a significant delay may occur between the planting of a tree and evidence of its atmospheric impact.

Trees are planted for their carbon absorption capacity. but the amount of carbon a tree is able to store is not easily determined.

Emission measurements used for the purposes of the eco-exchanges are very rough estimates (e.g., greater pollution may occur when a plane is taxiing on the ground than when it is flying across the country.
Interestingly, some committed environmentalists are criticizing the offset approach because it encourages guilt-free polluting. "Purchasing offsets can be seen as an easy way out for governments, businesses and individuals to continue polluting without making changes to the way they do business or their behavior," Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and the World Wide Fund for Nature-U.K. declare in a joint statement.

Still, assuaging liberal guilt seems to be a huge growth industry, and a host of entities have sprung up to accommodate those who feel burdened.

The Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX) actually trades greenhouse gas offsets in a similar fashion to the stock market.

The CCX recently announced the biggest trading month in the exchange's history. In February 2007 CCX traded 3,712,100 metric tons of carbon dioxide. At prices that hover around $4 per metric ton that means CCX traded over $14 million worth of offsets in one month.

In addition to the planting of trees, some firms offer carbon offset alternatives such as investments in wind farms, bio-diesel plants, methane projects, and the like.

A new report by the Transnational Institute, a Dutch advocacy group, indicates that carbon offset arrangements may be damaging the environment rather than helping to fight climate change.

The report, titled "The Carbon Neutral Myth," compares existing carbon offsets to indulgences granted by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages.

The report contends that rather than having any meaningful effect on the environment most carbon offset programs just create moneymaking opportunities for "self styled eco-capitalists."

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