The pardoner’s tale
“Carbon offsets” are the environmental movement’s big craze at present. That they are being exploited by adept self-promoters at the expense of the wellmeaning and the dunderheaded should surprise no observer of human nature or market economics. One hopes Al Gore and friends recognize the credibility issue here as they tout carbon offsets but do little or nothing to verify their worth. No wonder people are calling offsets modernday indulgences, or snake oil.
The latest news comes by way of the London-based Financial Times, whose investigation found “widespread failings in the new markets for greenhouse gases,” includ- ing the $4 billion in “voluntary” offsets now commonly touted. The findings include: “instances of people and organizations buying worthless credits that do not yield any reductions in carbon emissions”; “[i]ndustrial companies profiting from doing very little”; “[b]rokers providing services of questionable or no value”; and “[a] shortage of verification, making it difficult for buyers to assess the credits’ true value.” It seems that far too few have determined with any certainty whether carbon offsets actually work before the craze got underway.
This was predictable for several reasons, beginning with the novelty of it all. The fact that many people purchase offsets not for their viability but to feel as though they’re saving the planet creates the kind of economic environment in which waste and fraud can thrive. At least some of the alternative-energy projects financed by offsets were destined to be revealed as scams. Some of them turned to the emerging fad because they couldn’t find more conventionally rational financial backers.
In other instances, companies simply created a box for the environmentally fervent to check. Some companies ask consumers to fund the reduction of greenhouse gases but then pocket a large chunk of the fees collected in instances where the needed cleanup is cheap. This is either ingenious or deceptive, depending on your perspective.
Even before Mr. Gore began citing carbon offsets to explain his family mansion’s regal energy consumption, people began wondering whether offsets really accomplish much. This is not a left-right issue. For supporters of offsets, it’s credibility. For skeptics, it’s an issue of separating the hype from the facts.
Accordingly, the promoters and consumers of carbon offsets have their work cut out for them. At minimum, rather than touting their own good conscience, Gore & Friends should first make sure that the offsets actually work, and do not become the snake oil of the green revolution.
Alternatively, Mr. Gore — who so fervently implores the masses to consume less fuel — could try walking the walk himself for once.