Last Glance
Carbon Offsets The Gift that Keeps on Giving?
December, 2007 - Issue #38
I'm 35,000 feet above the earth, daydreaming about carbon offsets. They're the latest thing, you know, and I'm dying to be the first on my block to own one.

I may ask Santa for more than one, in fact. I am, after all, traveling 3,000 round-trip miles to New York, and I don't think I will be able to stomach the environmental guilt without them. If you plan on doing any holiday traveling, you may not be able to live without them, either.

The concept behind carbon offsets is simple. By contributing a carefully-formulated ratio of money to any number of environmental organizations - which in turn funnel a portion of said funds into causes such as tree planting and wind farm development - you can offset ("make up for") the carbon footprint (pollution) you are leaving on the earth.
Here's a quote from a carbon-offset site I Googled recently.

"Your contribution will be used to fund clean renewable alternative energy projects which will force clean electricity onto the grid and displace fossil fuel generated electricity."


You can drive a Hummer, jet set across Europe, or heat your pool all winter and still feel good about your contribution to global health.

It's a tremendous concept, actually, though hardly new. The Roman Catholic Church employed the same strategy centuries ago by selling what it called "indulgences," a system that allowed parishioners (for a fee), to offset their sins - at least the venial ones.

In the same way, carbon offsets offer an escape from environmental purgatory.

We're talking about guilt-free consumption here. If that's not the quintessential American holiday spirit, I don't know what is.

The rub in all this is the inconvenient truth that carbon offsets don't actually offset anything. The "offsets" under your Christmas tree, for example, won't do anything about the pollution caused by the lights you wrapped around it.

No, the gift of a carbon offset isn't a clean environment. It's a clean conscience.

"The rub in all this is the INCONVENIENT TRUTH that carbon offsets don't actually offset anything. The 'offsets' under your Christmas tree, for example, won't do anything about the pollution caused
by the lights you wrapped around it."

The best parallel I can draw involves a panhandler I used to see every morning on the opulent corner of Wilshire and Santa Monica in Beverly Hills. To the drivers speeding by in their six-figure cars, he was a living "indulgence" - a wealth offset, if you will.

They could ignore his new sweatshirt and $100 sneakers, stick a 20-spot out the window and feel good about themselves all day.

Did their contribution do anything to ease poverty or homelessness in Los Angeles? No. That guy bussed in from his apartment in east L.A. every morning - I saw that, too.

But again, in this case, as in the case of carbon offsets, it truly is better to give than receive. That "homeless" guy covered his rent. But the man driving the Ferrari got a free conscience - something money isn't supposed to be able to buy.

Today, the carbon-offset business is booming. A Google search for "buy carbon offsets" turned up almost 28,000 hits in October. You can find organizations promising offsets that are "verifiable" and "affordable." You can choose from numerous offset packages - the perfect prophylactic to fit your carbon footprint, or the footprint of that special someone you're thinking about this Christmas.
And if you're planning a holiday wedding, there's an organization that sells a carbon-footprint-free wedding. Just tell them how many guests are coming, how much traveling they will do, and what kind of gas mileage they expect to get, and you can exchange nuptials in exquisite carbon-neutrality.
Really, I can't imagine a better gift this year. I think we should all give it some thought. Forget the Wiis and skip the Ipods. Don't bother with the Iphone and skip the new car - unless it's a hybrid.

Buy your loved ones carbon offsets. Give them the gift of guilt-free living.
While you're at it, you might as well slip them a book on environmental stewardship. I know they don't need to think about things like gas mileage and solar energy - your thoughtful offsets saw to that.

But at least consider the educational route. After all, offsets can get pricey, and the giving season only comes once a year.
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