Do Carbon Offsets Reduce Carbon Emissions?

When celebrities who raise the alarm about global warming fly around the world on private jets, or use proflagate amounts of energy, they justify their carbon emissions by stating that they buy carbon offsets. The problem is that carbon offsets might not offset much carbon emissions. The Washington Post has a very interesting story about the U.S. House of Representatives’ efforts to reduce emissions through carbon offsets.

The House of Representatives has presumably learned that money cannot buy love or happiness. Now, it turns out it’s not a sure solution to climate guilt, either.

In November, the Democratic-led House spent about $89,000 on so-called carbon offsets. This purchase was supposed to cancel out greenhouse-gas emissions from House buildings — including half of the U.S. Capitol — by triggering an equal reduction in emissions elsewhere.

Some of the money went to farmers in North Dakota, for tilling practices that keep carbon buried in the soil. But some farmers were already doing this, for other reasons, before the House paid a cent.

Other funds went to Iowa, where a power plant had been temporarily rejiggered to burn more cleanly. But that test project had ended more than a year before the money arrived.

The House’s purchase provides a view into the confusing world of carbon offsets, a newly popular commodity with few rules. Analysts say some offsets really do cause new reductions in pollution. But others seem to change very little.

To environmentalists, the House’s experience is a powerful lesson about a market where pure intentions can produce murky results.

“It didn’t change much behavior that wasn’t going to happen anyway,” said Joseph Romm, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who writes a blog calling for more aggressive action on climate change. “It just, I think, demonstrated why offsets are controversial and possibly pointless. . . . This is a waste of taxpayer money.”

These results are typical of many government programs. It is sad to waste resources on activities that people would have engaged in anyway.

The real point is this–good intentions do no lead to good outcomes. Global warming policy needs to be rooted in actual positive outcomes, not merely good intentions.