Al Gore Move Over — We Have Carbon Offsets and We Don’t Even Own a Jet


Post by WildSnow.com blogger | August 2, 2007      

Leaving soon for a drive over the mountains to visit Crested Butte, Colorado so what better thing to report on than fun with carbon offsets? Offsets are fairly cheap (enough for all my driving for a year cost about $30 from CarbonFund.org.) So I bought some for blog fodder.

Aside from offsets seeming like yet another form of taxation, my biggest problem with these things is they smack of elitism. Those of us with plenty of discretionary income can live sin free, while families who can hardly put food on the table stay guilty. More, do offsets actually have any environmental benefit, or are they just a scam?

Silverado stickers.
I gleefully pasted the CarbonFund sticker on my full size carbon spewing Chevy — I can now do my part in using up the world’s petrol reserves, with zero guilt.

The thing that makes me suspicious about carbon offsets is they’re hypocritical. Advocates tell you to buy offsets, and in the same breath say you should give up as much of your western consumer lifestyle as possible. What’s the deal with that? If offsets work, and you buy enough, let the good times roll!

Indeed, according to carbonfund.org, for just $99.00 a year the average individual can buy their way to the sinless state of carbon neutrality.

This brings to mind our local municipality. Here in Carbondale, Colorado we live in a mini socialist republic, with government officials who think they know best what to do with our money. Recently the wisemen proposed building a massive and expensive solar array, and got voter approval for a $1.8 million bond to finance it, not to mention a cash subsidy from the town as well as the un-calculated drain that more city facilities would place on our day-to-day town maintenance staff and budget. I did the math. Carbondale has about 6,000 residents. That’s $300 per person if you want to use the bond proposal as a starting number.

Considering our town could become carbon neutral by spending around $90/person a year, doesn’t it seem interesting we’re not simply buying offsets and moving on to other issues (e.g., crime, roads, youth issues)? More, solar panels have a maximum life span of about 40 years, and a large array definitely has significant maintenance and repair costs. Thus, while the cost of solar is indeed somewhat “one time” and an array could perhaps come close to paying for itself, nothing is free.

What all this tells me is that first, carbon credits are odd and I’ll keep researching them. And two, environmental politics is more about fads, government power and feel-good junk rather than reality.

Luckily, once reality strikes it sometimes carries a big stick. Carbondale recently discovered that their bond proposal wasn’t going to work for financing their dream of a sinless solar state, so they turned the project over to the Aspen Skiing Company (who does this sort of stuff as a kind of mixed sin absolution and public relations). Apparently the financial system is set up in such as way as to work better for private enterprise, so the Ski Co will partner with the town to some extent, but mostly do the project as part of their business.

The possible irony in all this: Let’s say a town did buy offsets, which go to financing alternative energy, tree planting, and stuff like that? Then that same fund gave a grant to that same town for doing those same projects? Think about it. That’s how weird carbon offsets are…. they seem like a rather roundabout way to allocate money, and thus introduce financial inefficiencies (not to mention possible corruption or outright fraud.) Sort of like Al Gore buying carbon offsets from a firm he owns.

So, what do you blog readers think?



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Comments

31 Responses to “Al Gore Move Over — We Have Carbon Offsets and We Don’t Even Own a Jet”

  1. Ricky August 2nd, 2007 8:17 am

    Seems like shifting responsibility to me. IF all these things are as big a problem as Al Gores says it is then shouldn’t shouldn’t there be a push for personal responsibility instead of paying someone else to clean up your mess? What is that teaching our children… don’t clean up your room, just give your allowance to the kid down the street with the really clean room make. Perfect sense.

  2. Tom W August 2nd, 2007 7:44 am

    I Just want one of those Wildsnow stickers, whaddaya think Lou?

  3. Andrew L August 2nd, 2007 8:09 am

    Hey Lou,

    I think carbon (and other pollution) offsets make the most sense in industry: a clean factory can sell its carbon quota to a dirty factory, and that way both are within the legal limit.

    Such a system is a market-based way to encourage factories to get cleaner over time.

    For individuals, though, you’re right — even if the offsets are real, the system smacks of hypocrisy.

    I say eco leaders like Gore should try to minimize their carbon footprint as an example to others–not live large and buy their way to so called carbon neutrality.

  4. Mark August 2nd, 2007 8:29 am

    Whatever happened to “reduce, reuse, recycle?” Keep it simple Al. So when did Wildsnow come up with the cool ski/climb and ski tracks stickers?

  5. Rahul Dave August 2nd, 2007 9:40 am

    Two points:

    (a) if for every 10 miles ‘gore spends’ he convinces 10 people to reduce their environmental impact by 10% would he not be responsible from some indirect offset?

    (b) But all thats in the spirit of carbon offsetting which is a ‘global’ solution. But is there value to ‘local’ solutions like the carbondale solar array? I dont know. But there is energy wastage on the grid and many local decisions may impact global energy routing. Does it have local environmental impacts? Perhaps not as the coal is being mined elsewhere but there may be a spillover impact on attitudes towards sustainable living, garbage disposal, etc.

    Hard to quantify this stuff…

  6. David August 2nd, 2007 8:55 am

    Buying carbon offsets uses basically the same type of market based system that has been fairly successful dealing with acid rain in the NE and in many other scenarios. Though there may be a sense of hypocrisy (or at least passing the buck), this type of system works. It’s not perfect, but it works.

    I agree it would be best if we all just kept our own houses in order, but that’s true for every issue under the sun (and seemingly what Carbondale is attempting to do in their community with the solar arrays).

    Lou, with all due respect, this comment doesn’t seem supported by what you documented. ” And two, environmental politics is more about fads, government power and feel-good junk rather than reality.” It’s a given that politics is often ridiculous, but I don’t see how what you describe occurring with the carbon credits/solar is feel good junk as opposed to some reality that you offer.

  7. Brent Read August 2nd, 2007 12:01 pm

    I think the people who invented “Carbon Credits” have a pretty good gig going on here and am trying to figure out how to get on the selling end. I figure if I ride my bike to work (4 miles each way) instead of driving my SUV, I would save a half gallon of gas each day, and also the ensuing carbon.

    What is the going rate for a gallon of gas in Carbon Credits? Mine are for sale if anyone is interested.

  8. Gareth August 2nd, 2007 12:24 pm

    If you are a little sceptical about carbon offsetting take a look at:

    http://www.cheatneutral.com/

  9. Ricky August 2nd, 2007 2:09 pm

    I’m with Brent. How do you get in on the selling of Carbon Credits…

  10. Chad August 2nd, 2007 2:02 pm

    I’m with Tom. How do we get those cool stickers??

  11. Joel August 2nd, 2007 3:40 pm

    Gareth – cheatneutral.com was hilarious…thanks.

    Community changes do have some profound effects when organized, which is where something like carbon offsets actually works for individuals. The people’s republic (where I live) has successfully reduced their carbon emissions by 5% by organizing several efforts, one of which is the carbon tax on my electric bill.

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=12375985

  12. Lou August 2nd, 2007 6:31 pm

    You guys are a bunch of jokers, and also make some very interesting comments!

    If you want stickers, just email me and I’ll fire you a set. Use contact link to left.

  13. Hamish August 2nd, 2007 6:33 pm

    Lou,
    Good on you for doing something. Better than just bellyaching or denying! It’s also appropriate to point out that cap & trade or offset schemes are only one part of the puzzle and won’t actually reduce total carbon released into the atmosphere.

    2. “environmental politics is more about fads, government power and feel-good junk rather than reality.” —>true about all politics no?

  14. Rando Swede August 2nd, 2007 10:48 pm

    I agree with David up there… we all need to keep our houses in order to have any effect. And buying credits is a warm, fuzzy way of paying for things you can’t afford with a high-interest credit card. We need to look past our short little lifetimes and decide if we want all of the little Louie’s out there to have a world worth living in.

    What really bothers me is that our society, politicians and government generally lack vision or “gumption” if you will. The days of “ask not what you can do… ” have been replaced by, “what did Paris get arrested for…” If everyone did the bare minimum in conservation it would have a huge impact.

    Back to vision… what if every building in the country had a single 4×8 solar panel, used only CF lights and each commuter took public transport 1x per week? The difference would be immense. But the oil/power companies would lose profits you say… well, a “visionary” oil CEO should be able to realize that 275M people live in about 150M houses time X cost for those panels = a boat load of $$$. Throw in all of the commercial buildings, shopping malls, 7/11’s, office parks we are building and we are talking enormous numbers here. Then there is installation, maintenance and… bottom line is that there is actually is money to be made here. A visionary government and or corporation should easily see that.

    But no… elections are coming up and towing the line is more important than vision. Most of the country is complacent when we should all be mad as heck!

  15. Derek August 3rd, 2007 12:31 am

    Carbon credits are just another example of “environmentalists” living continued hypocrisy. Much like pro skiers doing guided heli skiing trips in the Himalaya in the name of “environmentalism”.

  16. Teletim August 3rd, 2007 5:08 am

    man you are a hypocrite. So, the town is going to really do something to reduce its carbon foot print, not use the lie that is the purchase of offsets, and you bith about it. Further, you claim that money would be better spent on roads and youth issues? Meanwhile, you complain about the USFS making roads safer while sending your son to a private school. Grab a mirror, take a look.

  17. geoff August 3rd, 2007 6:51 am

    I don’t really get the hostility to offsets. I bought some voluntarily this year and thought it was an interesting thing to do. First, it helped me quantify a basic carbon footprint for my lifestyle. There’s no doubt that carbon cycling is an important issue and it’s worth knowing where you fit in. Related to that, if I decide I’d like to reduce my carbon footprint, I kind of need numbers to know where it started. For example, the carbon emissions from a ski trip I took to Alaska approximately doubled by family’s emissions for the year (1 flight to Fairbanks roughly equaled 2 cars driving for the year + 1 household’s electricity + some heating oil). Who knew? Now, if I care, do I want to change some lightbulbs or take one or two fewer flights?

    Second, and I understand this depends on the firm selling the offsets, the money goes toward getting renewables (in the case of the firm I chose, wind) up and running and into the grid. I firmly believe this needs to happen somehow, and if I can contribute a little to it while simultaneously learning about my own lifestyle, why not?

    I don’t see any elitism in it, either. I don’t see it in terms of sins, but I do feel successful when my carbon footprint goes down and unsuccessful when it goes up. The offsets help me keep track, while contributing – please note voluntarily and without any government incentive or regulation – to something that I think needs to happen somehow.

    I didn’t get a halo and think the bumpersticker is silly. I didn’t even see Al Gore’s movie, but that doesn’t mean there’s no point to it. As for hypocrisy, it seems to me that if you value anything at all beyond unbridled capitalism and live in the developed world, you probably have inconsistencies in your life. No sense getting too hung up on them.

  18. Jay Jurkowitsch August 3rd, 2007 7:54 am

    Yeah Lou – I’d love some WildSnow stickers as well. Please send a dozen or so – of both styles – to; Jay Jurkowitsch (address remove for privacy)
    Really appreciate it and I’m sure I can drum up interest for Wild Snow in this are with them.
    Later – Jay J

  19. Jeff Fiedler August 3rd, 2007 11:11 am

    Lou: You are right to have a healthy skepticism about voluntary carbon offsets. For more on their pros and cons, see:
    http://pdf.wri.org/20070718_broekhoff_testimony.pdf
    [Hey, turns out the politicians ARE paying attention!]

    But you can’t blame this on enviro groups — most are pretty skeptical about them too, seeing them primarily as something individuals can do in the current absence of real climate regs, and working hard on the need for some oversight and rules so that voluntary offsets aren’t a complete shell game (which they can very easily be).

    Most blame on the sellers of offsets for promoting the seemingly easy and cheap sin removal. Buyer beware here! And anyone serious knows that this problem ain’t going to get solved without a mandatory cap-and-trade system, carbon tax, efficiency standards etc. etc.

  20. Sky August 3rd, 2007 11:46 am

    offsets = big scam

  21. thomas August 3rd, 2007 12:55 pm

    carbon credits are a little less of a scam than subsidizing the richest companies in the world (oil), at least when they are used to build alternatives( wind,solar,tidal). Carbon credits make greenwashing
    easy, that’s for sure.

  22. mark August 3rd, 2007 1:16 pm

    My immediate need for a carbon offset involves the sandwiches I burned while reading the previous comments.

  23. Bruce Hayden August 3rd, 2007 8:29 pm

    There are a lot of problems with carbon offsets, above and beyond the fact that they engender hypocrisy.

    First, the question of where do they come from? Most of the carbon offsets around are pretty bogus. Planting trees in some third world country and taking 100 years of credit for that? Well, most of the time those setting this sort of thing up don’t escrow the money to take care of them for that long. Or, usually, at all. They tend to be monoculture, or at least not as diverse as what was originally there. And in some cases, they forgot to provide for water in a water short environment. Most likely, once all those in the first world have taken their credits and gone on, those living by the newly planted forests will just cut them down for firewood – which just releases all the CO2 they just sequestered. Or, there was the scheme to give away more environmentally friendly light bulbs in South Africa – but they didn’t take into account that those getting the light bulbs would have to travel to get them, burning more fossil fuel that would probably be saved, at least in the short run.

    The basic problem is that carbon offsets have to come from somewhere, and without a legally imposed cap and trade system, there is nothing to keep people from inventing carbon offsets out of thin air.

    But legal cap and trade systems have their own problems – the most obvious being the question of where do the permits come from in the first place. The most obvious answers are from previous emissions levels and from political spoils. In any case, they are a government giveaway to someone. In the case of permits for past emissions levels, they essentially work to penalize new industries (that weren’t around to have emissions levels in the past and thus have to buy them) to the benefit of declining industries (that have them for sale because they are declining). Not the best route to economic efficiency.

    If your goal is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the most realistic approach is a flat tax rate on the emissions. Then, the companies that can reduce emissions most economically will do so, and the rest will pay the taxes. It provides an incentive to reduce, without the economic skewing effects of cap and trade systems.

  24. Lou August 4th, 2007 6:37 am

    Good info you guys, great to get the different points of view on this. And the humor is terrific! Perhaps I should start selling “full size Chevy offsets” for the many days I don’t drive at all? Get paid not to drive, what a concept! More, we like planting trees in our yard, perhaps we can start a website and sell offsets based on that as well.

    Seriously, I could see offsets being okay if there was total accountability and they were sold for solid things that really did yield a net reduction in pollution. But the tree thing is highly suspect.

  25. adam olson August 5th, 2007 7:04 am

    I see it now. we start a carbon offset community and sell our vertical feet skinned to the ski company!

  26. Lou August 5th, 2007 7:13 am

    Adam, exactly! Perhaps we can call it the “reverse ski pass.” The Aspen Skiing Company should pay us to stay off the lifts, that would be a great carbon offset!

  27. Thom Mackris August 5th, 2007 10:49 pm

    So many ways to cheat with carbon offsets, but the most insulting aspect of them is that it smacks of the Roman Catholic Church’s policy selling indulgences to “sinners”.

    If you have money, you can sin … sigh.

    Cheers,
    Thom

  28. Lou August 6th, 2007 6:02 am

    Thom, that’s been exactly my feeling. The whole global warming thing in many ways is just like a religion, and as we all know religion can go way bad way fast. Global warming has it all: guilt; evangelism; sin absolution for hire; holier than thou finger pointing; a wrathful god (earth); wealthy preachers; ascetic living as holy; a concept of sin; and so much more to enjoy! In comparison to Christianity, about the only thing is lacks is some form of redemptive grace — that is unless someone gives you carbon credits as a gift. (grin)

  29. Ricky August 6th, 2007 8:56 pm

    Don’t even think about it Lou…

    I can see the headline now… Dawson’s Church of Carbon Neutrality.

    remember kids, “Don’t drink the kool-aid.”

  30. Lou August 7th, 2007 5:53 am

    Ricky, aint gonna happen (grin).

  31. Way to Go Green August 7th, 2009 9:36 am

    Your Blog is so full of great information, thanks! Wind Power is very popular around here. There are several large wind farms within 15 miles and several home owners that produce their own wind power. Thanks for writing about carbon offsets.

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