Thursday, November 02, 2006

How Much is Pollution Worth?

As someone who has now spent two years in the environmental movement in one of the most liberal cities in America, I've been amazed at how much further "ahead" people are out here in terms of conceptualizing a different world that on the eco-front is far and away greener than anything you may read in the standard ink around the country.

Then I'm reminded of how "out there" we may seem to be when I read something like this.

Carbon offsetting is becoming the new fad in circles from the Sierra Club to bands like Pearl Jam and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Many corporations are scrambling to buy up carbon offsets so they can proclaim their "greenness" to consumers and thus feel better about their products and bottom line.

In essence, this is another way that people (and corporations) can duck responsibility. Buying up carbon credits is a good thing because it absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere but really its a temporary pass for emitters to pay a small price for their pollution. If a corporation wants to buy up some carbon credits in order to keep belching out 500 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere over the next five years, you can bet it will cost less to plant a bunch of trees in some third world country or put up 10 windmills in Montana than it would to pay the price through cutting their emissions to respectable levels. After all, that means cutting production. It presents a great marketing opportunity for the companies and firms, selling themselves as "green leaders" to their consumers and clients, when really they're just buying the right to pollute. Not only is it a corporate feel-good action but a consumer one as well. By the way, when those trees in Tanzania are cut down, all that carbon is released back into the atmosphere.

During medieval Europe the Catholic church offered up a similar opportunity to offset one's sins with purchased indulgences effectively saying society could purchase forgiveness if they could fork over enough money. Carbon offsets feel all to parallel in this. What happens when everyone wants to just offset their CO2 and let someone else do the dirty work? The point is not everyone can simply fork over money to pollute because in the end, the biggest polluters in our world are also the wealthiest and as long as they can pay, our air and water will only continue to get worse. It feels like a group of people agreeing that they have to empty the latrines in order to have a place to go to the bathroom but no one is signing up to do the dirty work. Right now we have a few "janitors" in the mix -- carbon offsetting programs and organizations, but all too many polluters willing to pay whatever they can not change their processes and strategies. Here's the list of carbon offsetting programs.

I don't think carbon offsetting is a solution. It might be a bridge (to where I have no idea) that helps usher in understanding of climate change and CO2. It shirks responsibility, presents the idea of a free lunch, and further pushes global warming and climate change off into the horizon away from our daily routines and business habits, that, God forbid we might have to change. My one fear is, do we really want to make a market out of our climate? What happens if that market takes a dive? Thats a Black Tuesday I don't want to be around for.

The erosion of the commons in this society is all to prevalent. Privatizing water and air is already happening. Taking ownership of the very basic elements of this earth shouldn't be surprising but it should germinate indignation. Real solutions to cleaning up the earth will revolve around changing paradigms and cultural habits, not looking for a free lunch or short cut.

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