Controversy over carbon offsets misguided

Lisa Curtis

When I told a professor that I’m working on a project to install energy efficient compact florescent light bulbs (CFL) in low-income areas in Walla Walla, he became excited. Then I told him that I’m writing my senior thesis on possible ways that this reduction in greenhouse gases could count as a carbon offset for Whitman. Suddenly, he wasn’t so excited.

I believe his reaction to my idea to help Whitman balance its carbon output by actively reducing greenhouse gases in the community is related to widespread negative perceptions of carbon offsets.

A carbon offset is simply a credit that an individual or organization can purchase to lower their carbon footprint by paying another company or individual for an environmentally friendly project. This idea covers everything from an individual purchasing a certain amount of renewable energy (often called “green tags”) to an industrialized country funneling billions of dollars into projects in a developing country.

Individuals, companies or governments purchasing offsets out of their own interest makes up what is referred to as the voluntary market. According to Ecosystem Marketplace, in 2008 approximately $705 million of carbon offsets were purchased in the voluntary market.

The revenues are even larger in the compliance market: the market that government, companies or other organizations turn to when they are unable to meet their pledged greenhouse gas reduction targets. In 2006, the World Bank estimated that there were $5.5 billion worth of carbon offsets purchased in the compliance market.

Despite the success of the carbon market and the predicted growth due to compliance legislation and cap and trade legislation, many people question its validity. Scientifically, it’s difficult to determine whether the projects paid for by carbon credits are actually reducing greenhouse gases. Morally, it’s hard to validate a process that essentially allows wealthy people to buy their way out of a low-carbon lifestyle.

Although my professor didn’t say it, I can imagine some of his concerns: If Whitman was to offset part of its emissions through energy efficiency projects in Walla Walla, would we be imposing our environmental principles on people who wanted nothing to do with them?

Even worse, would we be asking people who likely use far less energy than us to reduce their emissions while we kept on using energy without thinking twice?

While these are valid concerns, they’re untrue. Energy efficiency: whether it’s in the form of light bulbs, weatherization kits or water aerators: isn’t just an environmental concept. Of course, there are environmental benefits in reducing energy use, but the argument for energy efficiency is primarily an economic one.

According to the Department of Energy, the typical U.S. family spends about $1,900 a year on home utility bills. Approximately 11 percent of that energy budget is dedicated to lighting: but it doesn’t have to be. Purchasing a 47 cent energy efficient CFL light bulb to replace an often used incandescent light bulb could save $15 in less than a year.

My point is not to convince you to change all your light bulbs but rather to emphasize that there’s a direct economic benefit to projects often written off as “environmental.” Additionally, there are often equally valuable but not directly economic benefits: In this case, the impetus for Whitman students to become more involved in the Walla Walla community.

Leading over 40 students and parents to knock on doors in the Farm Labor Home and offer to replace every light bulb in their house was an incredible experience. Many of the groups came back with soda and tacos in hand, having made new friends with residents while replacing light bulbs.

I knew we’d done something right when three different women came over to where I was packing up the light bulbs and asked me if we could come to their houses. Our volunteers cheerfully stayed longer than the allotted two hours to help these women, but we were only able to reach less than a quarter of the houses.

We promised the residents of the Farm Labor Home that we would come back until we had replaced every light bulb in every home that wanted it. If selling carbon offsets could provide a sustainable source of funding so that we could do that: well then they can’t be all that bad.

While the administration has yet to even consider purchasing local carbon offsets, if I ever survive the requirements of a politics senior thesis, I hope
they will.