A carbon offset is a reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases made to compensate for emissions made elsewhere. For example, if I were enrolled in an offset program and I knew that I drove 20 miles every week, I might pay into a fund to plant an equivalent number of trees to sequester carbon in say, the Amazon.
While we applaud the desire for folks to reduce their emissions, there are some issues. First and foremost, we’d like to encourage anyone thinking about this to instead donate to local environmental, public health, or environmental justice nonprofit organizations. The Coalition for Clean Air, which coordinates California Clean Air Day, is a great choice as are these Clean Air Day nonprofit partners. You might also think about your bank’s role in climate change and whether it’s time to change.
Effective ways to spend your hard-earned dollars aside, here are some of our issues with offsets:
1. We need direct action to meet California’s climate goals
This isn’t to say we aren’t doing well. Thanks to record level adoption of renewable energy, which represented less than 10% of our energy production in 2000 but more than a third today, we reached our climate goals much earlier. Unfortunately, in a time when we need to be driving less, the amount we drive has risen year after year. To meet our climate (and air quality) goals, we have to reverse the trend.
2. Carbon offsets don’t help with local air quality
California is home to some of the worst air pollution in the Country. In the most recent State of the Air Report, the Los Angeles-Long Beach region ranked as having the worst ozone and the San Joaquin Valley has the worst particulate matter. While we appreciate companies complementing their climate goals with offsets, the reality is that for most of us switching to zero emission yard equipment, driving less and / or taking smart actions to lower emissions from the shipping industry will make a much bigger difference.
3. Carbon offsets are complicated and sometimes controversial
A recent article in ProPublica looked at a large project in Massachusetts, paid for by carbon offset programs in California, that may have produced no actual carbon emission benefits…even thought everyone followed the rules. In other words, there is sometimes intrinsically troubling about the design of the offset program. That’s not to say all carbon offset programs are bad and in fact some folks have done a very good job of ranking them, but it does point out that there are challenges.
The bottom line for us is that when it comes to protecting community health, improving air quality and prevent climate change, there is no substitute for direction action, especially when there are so many simple actions all of us can take that collectively make a huge difference.