In October 1980, a couple of years
after I started Costa
Rica Expeditions, a reporter from the Tico
Times, Costa Rica's English language newspaper wrote an
article about my fledgling enterprise.
Almost 20 years later, researching her book on eco-tourism,
and Sustainable Development, Martha Honey found my long
forgotten answer to a question about what made my vison of tourism
different, "Tourism should contribute to, rather than exploit
(the land)...It should be active rather than passive, emphasizing
cultural exchange rather than mere sightseeing." Honey
called them "pioneering words." Almost 30 years later,
having watched eco-tourism fads come and go, I can't decide
whether to be proud, or wish I had kept my big mouth shot.
The new hot fad in sustainable travel these days is paying offsets
for our carbon
footprint. That is, to compensate for the amount our lifestyles
contribute to the catastrophic largely man made changes that
are taking place in the earth's climate we pay money that is
supossedly used to change things back.
As far as I can figure out, the way it is supposed to work is
that we add up all the carbon our vacation spews into the atmosphere.
Then using math way beyond the power of mere mortals to understand,
experts calculate the amount of money that it would take to
remove the carbon that we have put in. We then fork over this
money to carbon offset brokers, and, after covering their overhead
and administrative expenses, they spend the money on sequestering
carbon by natural means, or on developing renewable energy technologies
that will, they claim, result in a smaller carbon footprint
from the same activities in the future.
A SEDUCTIVE STRATEGY
It is a brilliantly seductive strategy. With a small manageable
financial sacrifice we "offset" (or should it be buy
off) our life styles. Any scheme that allows sustainability
gurus to guiltlessly fly around in private jets and contaminate
the atmosphere much more than the ordinary citizen has got to
be worthy of our respect.
Irrational symbolic fixes for potential catastrophes is nothing
new. When I was a teenager, it was nuclear holocaust. The Russians
had just gotten the hydrogen bomb. Since the US had just snuffed
250,000 Japs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, everyone assumed that
we were next. In school the response that we were given were
air raid drills in which we were made to get down beneath our
desks and put our heads between our legs. After a while they
must have figured that we needed to do more to protect ourselves
against a bomb that was capable of making whole islands disappear
in the South Pacific, so they told us to turn away from the
windows. That was when I must have made some typically wise-ass
remark. I can't remember what I said, but I can remember being
sent to the principal's office and accused of being a communist.
I feel now exactly the way I feel then.
As much as I would love to be able to pay for offsets and continue
merrily on with my highly privileged and satisfying life, I
can't help but think that paying carbon offsets as an answer
to climate change is something like taking aspirin for cancer
that has very possibly metastasized. It might be comforting
to look at it as a good start. It does temporarily ease the
pain and you do feel like you are doing something about it,
but, if it distracts you from getting the chemo or the radiation
that might really help in the long run, it is, to be charitable,
a short sighted strategy.
When I asked a scientist friend of mine who is one of the pioneers
in climate change research what he thought of offsets, he put
it very succinctly, "The science is doubtful and the social
policy is worse."
Let's start with the social policy. No matter how hard you
spin it, you don't get around the fact that essentially offsets
are rich people paying so that they can maintain their unsustainable
I find it particularly unfortunate that in the Travel Industry
we have been especially self-deprecating by singling out the
carbon footprint of travel to be offset.
Conferences brag about being carbon
neutral by paying offsets by all the carbon generated by
the event. Travelers are encouraged to pay to offset carbon
generated by their vacations. It is as if we believed that carbon
produced by travel melts more glaciers than the carbon that
we all generate in the rest of our lives.
If our life styles are as unsustainable as the practice of
offsets suggests, it seems to me that we need to change our
life styles rather than paying to get ourselves off the hook.
But if we are going to buy offsets, we should at least buy them
for our entire carbon footprint, not just pick on travel.
Finally even a cursory look at the literature makes it pretty
clear that either offsets do not have the slightest potential
to make a dent in the problem, or the threat of climate change
is highly exaggerated. Hope for this second possibility is getting
slimmer every day.
When pressed offset supporters admit that offsets per se are
not effective. Then they go on to defend offsets as the solution
of last resort. After you have done everything possible to reduce
your greenhouse gas admissions, they suggest, if you absolutely
have to engage in polluting activities, it is better than nothing
to pay some money that will used to alleviate the theory. A
quick perusal at the ecommerce sites dedicated to selling offsets
shows that in almost all of the idea of reducing emissions it
appears at all is dwarfed aggressive promoting of the sale of
You can balance it out. Undoing your contribution to global
warming is easier than you think. Gaia Absolution (I made up
this name) is simple, affordable and verified. Be part of the
Goes the pitch on one of the more prominent and splashy sites.
This same site also offered a volume discount of as much as
28% on the cost for mile car offsets. The more you drive the
less you pay per mile. When I pointed this out, the CEO of the
company that owns the site said it was due to a "rounding
error," and promised that it would be corrected immediatley.
All the sites claim that the offsets are verified. I have yet
to figure out who verifies the verifiers. No place could I find
an offset ecommerce site that promotes the idea of a high enough
carbon tax to actually reduce emissions enough to make a difference,
and, hopefully, but the offset brokers out of business.
Nor do I find any evidence that offsets does anything other
than help people justify high levels of consumption. A friend
of mine who works for a prominent magazine dedicated to travel,
adventure and sustainability admitted in a conversation in which
she was defending offsets that when she first became aware of
the implications of climate crisis she stopped heli- skiing.
"If I was going to ski I was going to walk to the top of
the mountain." Than she found out about offsets and started
The other defense of offsets is that even though their effect
is minimal they sound good, because they "raise consciousness"
and/or are a "good start." Sounds good, but the argument
does not stand up to even minimal scrutiny. Is there any reason
to believe that when Al Gore pays offsets for the carbon footprint
of his 3 houses and his private jet travel that it is a start
towards him raising his consciousness to make some real sacrifices
to tighten his carbon belt?
Is their historical evidence that offsets work as an educational
tool or a good start? Did the Catholic Church selling indulgences
for sinful behavior in the middle ages serve as start for people
to learn to sin less or did it just encourage them to keep sinning,
while buying them less time in purgatory? I am not saying here
that selling indulgences for rape and pillage is the moral equivalent
to selling offsets for a quick getaway to Cancun. But it is
in the same spirit.
I am also not saying that our life-styles are sinful. My view
is that rather than being sinful, we are human. And being human
we are not saints. Al Gore does not fly around private jets
because he is bad; he flies around in private jets because he
can afford to---as would I. It seems to me hypocritical to criticize
Al Gore for using private jets unless you have enough money
to be able to do so and do not. But it also seems to me that
a regime that allows the most prominent spokesman in the US
for doing something about climate change to have an extraordinarily
large carbon footprint in the long run is bound to breed more
cynicism about sustainability than converts, no matter how effective
it is in the short run.
What I am saying is that the cause of sustainability and dealing
with the impacts of climate crisis would be much better served
if we stopped trying to hoodwink ourselves and others into thinking
we can offset our carbon footprints. If we feel guilty about
our carbon footprints we should reduce then or get over our
guilt. We can't fool the glaciers into melting less.
What's more, all of the above assumes that the money that received
from the offset buyers is spent honestly. That is a hopelessly
optimistic assumption. While there must be instances in which
the money is being honestly spent on projects that promise to
reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, there also must be
many other instances in which to put it bluntly the money is
being ripped off.
In a way even more pernicious than the out and out rip offs
is offset money going to good causes dishonestly represented.
An example of this is that the majority of the money spent for
offsets in Costa
Rica is used to protect old growth forest in parks and reserves.
It is logical that it should be this way. Costa Rica is famous
for protecting old growth tropical forests and an impressive
percentage of the national territory is under protection.
Furthermore maintaining old growth forest is a very worthy
cause. There is one small problem. Old growth tropical forests
are carbon neutral; they do not offset any carbon. Reforestation
of pastures sequesters carbon, but in Costa Rica very little
of the carbon offset money goes into reforestation, because
the owners of the pastures are dispersed and not connected to
the international networks that dole out the offset money. Also,
in many cases the money for offsets is not enough to reforest
a pasture. It is only enough to protect a forest that you are
going to protect anyway. Gotta pay those administrative and
What you do get with offsets is a whole industry with a vested
interest against carbon taxes that would be high enough to actually
reduce the amount of carbon we generate. As I pointed out above,
with a high carbon tax, the offset brokers are going to have
to find other work.While carbon offsets do not get you a whole
lot of sustainability, what they do get you is hype. Google
Neutral and you get 1,930,000 results. and you get 1,930,000
results. Costa Rica's Nature Air, Silverjet and Netjets all
claim to be the world's first carbon neutral aviation company.
I lost count at 25 "first" carbon neutral conferences.
All through the magic of offsets.
By and large the media reports all this with a straight face.
Right now carbon neutrality through offsets is a media darling.
Years ago a week did not go by when some journalist did not
ask me up about what we were doing to support local communities.
Now the media wouldn't notice if we were running a white slavery
operation in a local community as long as it was carbon neutral.
Media darlings have a way of becoming media goats. Almost certainly
in my view the press is going to start to investigate the most
ridiculous claims and how the money is spent. They will concentrate
on the worse abuses and tar good and bad with the same brush.
As somebody said, "The new yellow journalism is green."
Which brings me to the science: Every responsible scientist
that I can find believes that the climate is changing, and that
on balance the impacts will be more or less catastrophic. As
time goes on, the direr the predictions of responsible mainstream
scientists. The most pessimistic, people like James Lovelock,
go so far as to contemplate the possibility that eventually
climate change will threaten civilization, as we know it.
There is slightly less agreement about the relative roles of
man-made factors and natural cycles, but the great preponderance
of evidence is that human kind has played a decisive and negative
role especially by the production and releasing of greenhouse
gases into the atmosphere.
Up until this point the picture is pretty clear, but as soon
as we get to where in the cycle we are now, and what we should
be doing about it, the clarity dissolves.
My friend Robert Aglow won a Columbia Dupont Award for producing
a documentary on climate change for ABC news some12 years ago.He
has been avidly following the topic ever since. In a recent
email he gave me his "dispassionate" take in on where
the science stands now, "There is no way to determine if
we are at a tipping point, or tipping points because the best
scientists in the world can't predict exactly how or when the
various positive feedback scenarios (they call them positive
feedback which is misleading, of course, since they have very
negative effects) they are beginning to concentrate on will
So if this is the case what do we do? Here's Aglow again.
"So to your question of whether we build dykes and floating
cities and the rest or come up with real alternative fuel sources
and sustainable living models, the answer is that both are necessary
LOOKING AT THE PROBLEM
In my view it is not so much a matter of what to do about the
problem as how to look at the problem. When we dedicate time
and treasure to sustainability we are not buying sustainability
in the sense that when we buy a car we get a car. Way before
the carbon neutrality bandwagon, money and time spent on sustainability
was an investment, not a purchase. And investment intrinsically
means risk. Invest in eliminating DDT maybe we get non-toxic
produce and mother's milk; maybe we get 800,000 deaths from
malaria. In this case we got both.
Since we are talking about investing, the golden rules about
investing apply: Above all, diversify among high risk/high return
and tried and true initiatives. Beware of bubbles and bandwagons.
If everybody bets on the same thing you get a bubble. The great
offset fever that we are witnessing at the moment with everybody
racing to be the first or the biggest carbon neutral this or
carbon neutral that is the sustainability equivalent of the
.com bubble of the nineties and the housing bubble that is in
the process of bursting at the moment. Bubbles always burst.
Above all diversify. The most aggressive sustainability investors
will want to make massive investments in carbon neutrality.
At the same time it is still worthwhile and vital to continue
to protect wildlife and wildlands -- biodiversity will always
be important whatever happens with the climate. For some investing
to protect an important work of art or architecture will still
be the right answer. We can't be expected to do a good job with
nature if we neglect the great works of man.
Finally by all means helping local communities support themselves
and become self-sufficient is still the lynch pin of sustainability
in the developing world -- and often the weak link. If the dire
predictions of climate change play out as many of us fear, local
communities will be more vulnerable than ever.
In short (and in my personal opinion) anything but offsets.
Of course if you would have bought indulgences in the middle
ages, buy offsets now. The offset brokers gotta live too---and
it just might get you some good press ... for a while.
Since I first wrote this I have become increasingly aware
of something more troubling then the dubious science and social
policy. That is a concerted effort to stifle dissent with a
zeal worthy of the Bush administration. Responsible critics
of offsets like Bjorn
Lomborg the Danish environmentalist are vilified. I am not
sure whether this intolerence of disent is due the amount of
money there is to be made with offsets of political correctness.
I suspect both. Several people have told me in private that
they agree with my views on offsets, but would not say so in
public. I asked one of them why not and he told me that he lived