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Monday, June 27, 2011

Carbon Offsets

I am doing a little research on voluntary carbon offsets this morning; this post is mostly to collect that so I can find it in the future, and secondarily to ask the various hive minds (the lugubrious, senescent blogospherical one, the sprightly one libri faciem by reference, etc) for further input, and then also to share with y'all what I have found.

So carbon offsets are not necesarily all they are cracked up to be, and everyone who writes an article about this is required to use "an inconvenient truth" in their title somehow.

The voluntary market is apparently a crazy Wild West full of scamsters and well-intentioned collapsed projects; Coldplay ended up funding a grove of dead mango trees; planting trees is anyway fraught, since it seems to sometimes involve one local party to an ethnic dispute clearing out the other party, burning their villages, planting an invasive monoculture of trees and cashing the carbon offset checks, whereupon the other party to the dispute comes back and burns down the trees, releasing the carbon. (A better bet is building lots of scary looking flame-towers to burn methane coming out of a concrete-covered landfill, which looks very industrial-dystopian and not crunchy-granola at all, but produces a hell of a lot more greenhouse gas reduction).

And the great danger, of course, is that this feel-good solution -- "an imaginary commodity created by deducting what you hope happens from what you guess would have happened" -- will distract from the hard work of actually reducing emissions locally. Rather than rich countries and companies actually building solar plants, or bicycle lanes, or changing their filters, or whatever, they can buy good PR funding vaporware projects in poor countries.

That's all well and good. I appreciate these journalistic exposé articles, and the point is well taken. But it's all somewhat skew from what I actually need in order to make decisions in my own actual local area of control, i.e. my own consumption. Sure, offsets are awfully sketchy compared to actually reducing consumption. But I already, personally, don't have a car, and bike everywhere; I live in a small apartment; the electricity coming out of my wall is actually generated by water turbines and solar panels, not just offset-as-if-it-were. What I do that is climate-change-extravagant is fly transatlantically, and I'm not going to stop. I'm going to Wiscon, and to visit my family. The fictional notion of "offsetting" this, marketing gag though it may be, is an appealingly simple answer to the general question "how much of my donatable money should I allocate to things that might directly affect climate change, as opposed to other goods?"

Therefore I'm not really interested in the general critique of the notion, nor of the worst horror-story examples, which is what (driven by their own economic imperatives) the journalists are interested in showing me. I know the whole notion is somewhat iffy, but I don't think it's totally absurd; what I'm interested in are which are the best projects to fund (or standards to pay attention to, since there is a seething soup of those), not the exposé-ready worst.

This WWF report on the standards is somewhat more helpful; its caveats are quite sobering as well. The standard that seems to come out least iffy is the CDM Gold Standard, although, of course, that is the one co-designed by the WWF, who also wrote the report...

I assume it's also better to go directly to a project developer, rather than to some aggregator who will take a cut. All of which leads me to something like South Pole Carbon; carbon offsets from a gold standard project from these guys, for our yearly travel will cost about 300 bucks.

Is this model sensible, or am I better off giving this money somewhere else?

Posted by benrosen at June 27, 2011 09:35 AM | Up to blog

Yes, I'd like to install solar panels---I live in PHOENIX, for heaven's sake---but it's still really air travel that's spanking me. And the only way I can see to "offset" that at all* is by donating money to solar and other alternative technology development. So I have no opinions, but I'm keenly interested in what you DO find.

*Or zeppelins. I suppose we could all switch to zeppelins for air travel...

Posted by: Jackie M. at June 27, 2011 12:18 PM

Remember that it is always easier to conserve than to produce. Instead of funding fancy solar panel projects, try to cut down on air travel, shower in less than 5' (hot water accounts for 50% of all energy consumption in an average swiss household), only wash your clothes if absolutely necessay, dry them in the sun instead of using a tumbler, don't eat meat, etc, etc.

So, instead of donating to a project, put the money in a box and reward your family with dinner at a fancy restaurant (or a trip to Bennwil ;-)) if you all manage to consume less!

Posted by: Rahel at June 27, 2011 01:41 PM

Well, but see, that's what I was saying, Rahel; those things are not variable in my life. No amount of environmental feeling will keep me from Wiscon, or from seeing my parents each year. I already don't eat meat, use a dryer, etc.

I could probably stand to shower quicker; the water is all heated by non-fossil-fuel power, but on some level I suppose that's fungible (if they have extra watts, will they sell 'em to France?). But, more or less all those sliders are basically already maxed out. The things that I can change personally I have changed; the things I haven't changed I'm not going to change. Thus all the articles which say "but this is not as good as real conservation and may distract from it!" are, in my case (since it's not like I'm managing a city's public infrastructure) beside the point, like people saying "why are you worrying about sexism in language when there are women getting stoned to death in Afghanistan?"

These kinds of comparisons only make sense in a zero-sum context -- as if each dollar I didn't spend on supporting solar energy in China, or whatever, would somehow translate into more clothes being hung up to dry in my back yard.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at June 27, 2011 01:56 PM

ps. Ben, LJ barfed on something when this entry got syndicated to the feed. Possible bad link somewhere? I don't see one, but "CDM gold standard" links back to this entry.

Posted by: Jackie M. at June 27, 2011 02:53 PM

Oops, badly placed quotes. fixed now -- thanks

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at June 27, 2011 05:35 PM

Hmmm, delicate issue... Everyone's sliders are maxed out -- if the maximum is defined by convenience.

I like your sexism/stoned-to-death analogy -- but I would rather apply it the other way around. If the carbon offsets for your family's total yearly air travel costs a ridiculous 300 bucks, why even worry about not using a car, or living in a small apartment? It would only cost a few bucks more to compensate this as well. But yet I know that you DO worry, and I think it's extremely important that we all do.

Even if your hot water is heated by non-fossil-fuel power, it will have a tremendous effect if you try to save as much as possible. Electricity consumption IS a zero-sum game. If you don't use up your non-fossile-fuel-labelled bucket, the saved electricity won't rot, nor will it be sold to France. In fact, the bucket will simply be transferred to the "traditional" (read: power-plant-generated) bucket, which will then be empty later, which will lower the need to import from France. It is an inconvenient truth that Switzerland imports a lot of electricity, mainly to fill their pump storage plants. And this is just the "heating" aspect of warm water -- purification/recycling is a whole different story...

But I guess I see your point: I am very privileged that my family lives very close by (my air travel slider can be move arbitrarily and it doesn't hurt in the slightest), my kids are looking forward to the 7h train ride this saturday (while a 1h drive would be hell for everyone), and I stopped eating meat 25 years ago (so it's not even an option anymore). And yet my 1st world life-style undoubtedly DOES emit a substantial amount of carbon dioxide, and I should probably also look into offsetting that -- so I'am looking forward to the outcome of your research!

Posted by: Rahel at June 29, 2011 08:30 AM

>> Everyone's sliders are maxed out -- if the maximum is defined by convenience.

But "convenience" is, as you note later, not binary. Your decision whether to vacation in Thailand or Graubunden is of a different order of "convenience" than an expatriate's decision to skip returning to the Mother Country. An electric wheelchair is a "convenience" of a different order than a GameBoy. There are plenty of people for whom an iPad + iPhone + laptops + wifi hub are somewhat more dispensible luxuries than they are for part-time-employed IT workers with a long commute.

Excellent point about electricity consumption; interesting that Switzerland imports a lot. Maybe I will take shorter showers! But still orthogonal, because I doubt that "offset money in a cardboard box for restaurant rewards" will actually be very effective in inducing me to take shorter showers (though perhaps it's worth a try).

I agree to some extent with your point about reversing the analogy, but not entirely. Actually I'm highly in favor of optimizing based on reality -- just like in improving software performance, it's critical to look at the real costs and bottlenecks. If the point of the exercise is not just psychological, but physical, we have to look at what strategies are really most effective. Sometimes it turns out that something that seems at first blush like it might save energy -- like washing dishes by hand rather than using the dishwasher -- is actually counterproductive. So in that sense I actually do think we should worry less about small energy costs, and more about large ones.

But that doesn't get around the fact that the reducing costs we can actually observe and control has vastly more impact and reliability than trying to induce strangers at a distance to act in some way differently than how they theoretically might have acted, and other strangers to supposedly keep them from lying about it. Plus, in many cases -- as with your enjoyable 7h train ride -- there is actually no human cost, but rather a benefit, to reducing energy consumption.

The upshot of all of which is that my algorithm is first to do all the reuse/reduce/recycle I can do within the parameters of a happy life -- noting that some of those reductions actually produce a happier life -- and then, secondarily, to think about how to counterbalance the negative effects of the costs I'm unwilling to give up. That second step is obviously hugely iffier, so the priority is clearly on enlarging the former set of actions.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at June 29, 2011 09:31 AM

"The upshot of all of which is that my algorithm is first to do all the reuse/reduce/recycle I can do within the parameters of a happy life -- noting that some of those reductions actually produce a happier life -- and then, secondarily, to think about how to counterbalance the negative effects of the costs I'm unwilling to give up. That second step is obviously hugely iffier, so the priority is clearly on enlarging the former set of actions."

Couldn't agree more!

Posted by: Rahel at June 29, 2011 09:42 AM

You could treat your carbon offsets like an investment program, and think about things like diversity in your portfolio, short term and long term gains, risk versus reward, etc. Thus instead of giving all $300 to one project or program, you could give $100 to three.

You could also treat your carbon assets like "charity" (brain not work so good for find more better word right now) and throw in a few extra bucks to offset things like the firewood somebody in Haiti burns because they don't have any other way of cooking or purifying water.

You might also want to think about looking for groups that do long-term, community-based sustainable development work, including working on the kids of social change (or technological development) necessary to give folks like our Haitian woodburner other options.

(These run the spectrum from collectivist peasant/rural workers movements and their affiliated organizations (on the left, natch) to some of the stuff MIT's D-Lab is doing (kind of more in the middle w/left sensibilities and an entrepreneurial spirit).

And you could just say screw the carbon offsets altogether and make investments in various european and chinese alternative energy giants.

And don't forget to compost your kitchen scraps! (Preferably w/worms or a hot, fast method, so as not to allow for lots of methane off-gassing, as seen in slow compost piles across the world.)

Posted by: Jake at July 2, 2011 06:08 PM

Jake, I love these ideas!

The better word you are looking for is "tzedakah", which means what you mean to say by "charity" but instead of being related, etymologically, to a subjective and interior feeling of caritas, translates literally and simply as "justice".

Better than worms, our kitchen scraps go into the municipal industrial compost which captures the methane and generates electricity from it.

I am interested in hearing more about your suggestions for development-oriented tzedakah; that is definitely a crucial element, and you probably have a much better idea than I do what's effective.

To clarify a little where offsets fit in: we have a "tzedakah" budget, which is simply a set amount per month, and which has to address all the things we'd like to fix about the world, from disaster relief to long-term development to less economic forms of social justice and political action (like, say, Americans for Peace Now).

On top of that, some of the money we can't afford to give away but don't need immediately, we park in Kiva as a form of zero-interest savings. As with offsets, Kiva's model of microcredit has some risks, gaps in transparency, and possible perverse incentives, but I think on balance it is a reasonable way to have that money produce some marginal improvement in economic justice, as lack of access to credit is one thing that keeps our Haitian woodburner from upgrading.

This offset idea is, from a "family accounting" perspective, a third thing. Rather than being linked to income or cash flow, it's connected to, for instance, travel expenses. So when sitting down to think out "how many trips will we take this year and how much will they cost?" the idea is to factor into the financial equation some of the externalities.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at July 2, 2011 06:46 PM
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