The New York Times has an excellent article today about "offsetting": a mechanism where you calculate the amount of carbon emissions that your energy use creates, and then purchase an "offset" that pays for an equivalent amount of clean energy. Numerous websites, such as www.carbonfund.org and www.terrapass.com, now use these mechanisms. (See Gas Guzzlers Find Price of Forgiveness, April 22, 2006)
Certainly these programs serve two excellent and necessary purposes: first, they inform people about their carbon emissions; and second, they provide a means of funding clean energy -- both of which are critically needed.
But are these "offsets"? Dictionary.com (one of the most useful sites on the Internet - sign up for their word of the day) defines "offset" as "An agent, element, or thing that balances, counteracts, or compensates for something else."
Maybe I'm missing something here, but how does my purchasing 1,000 kw/hr of wind energy "offset" the CO2 emissions from my use of 1,000 kw/hr of electricity generated from coal? I can't offset my carbon emissions with something that's carbon neutral, but rather need to take action that is actually carbon negative -- such as actually planting trees, or taking carbon out of the atmosphere and actually sequestering it.
The New York Times notes that these "voluntary offset programs" have become increasingly popular in the past two years. But, according to the Times, "it is not clear whether they actually do any good, or are just one more way for Americans to feel good about doing things that pollute the atmosphere." And as Chip Giller, President of Grist.org stated: "To some extent it's a way for people to buy their way into heaven. . . On the other hand, this is such a big macro problem that this is one of the few things people can do to really make a difference."
Those of us who advocate for clean energy and sustainability should be accurate in what we sell, and not overstate the benefits.