Carbon Offsets vs. Political Impact

A few weeks ago, I posted on Instagram about my desire to offset my carbon emissions from travel, as it seems like the responsible thing to do. Thanks to many article recommendations and ideas—this one being the most informative—I’ve learned that carbon offsets, which are increasingly synonymous with RECs (Renewable Energy Credits), are way more complicated than “1) Buy me and 2) Poof! Away goes that flight from Denver to SF.”

Carbon offsets are complicated

In order to be effective, a carbon offset—money spent on a project used to offset carbon emissions—needs to go towards a project that is permanent, verifiable, AND additional. To see how these attributes work, let’s take a classic carbon offset program: paying an owner of primary forest to not chop down the forest. This sounds great. But, is such a project guaranteed to last forever? Will a logging company pay the forest owner more money in 50 years to then chop down the trees? Will an oil palm plantation pay the forest owners in 100 years to purchase the land for palm oil tree cultivation?
If the answer is always, ‘no,’ then the project is permanent. But, how do we *verify *this? How do we prove the forest is still there? That’s expensive, especially considering the most important types of forests to save are remote tropical rainforests. Do our offsets hire a full-time monitor of the land? Subsequently, do our offsets collaborate agreeably with the local stakeholders? Or are they imposing false ownership and interfere with local governments? These questions are myriad and there are rarely simple answers.
Lastly, is the project additional? Are our offsets saving forest from deforestation that would’ve not already been protected by local stakeholders, another organization or a government? This goes back to the verifiable issue. How do we know that our offsets are worth *anything substantial? *My conclusion: the efficacy of offsets is incredibly difficult to prove. That isn’t to say they aren’t potentially great (here’s a list of widely recommended programs). But, for now, I think my money is better spent in a more local, political realm. Yep, *political. *Hear me out.

An Alternative to Questionably Effective Carbon Offsets

Auden Schendler, VP of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company and a board member of Protect Our Winters (POW), argues that purchasing offsets or RECs is not as useful as donating to a political campaign that will help elect a pro-climate change mitigation candidate. We need institutionalized change. Individual actions are great, and shouldn’t be discounted, but personally, I agree with Auden. A government that works towards climate change mitigation is more powerful than a questionably effective rainforest protection project.
I’m going to donate money to pro-climate change candidates in Colorado’s 2018 gubernatorial election. I’m going to follow the advocacy work of POW like it’s my job. In many senses, it is my job to follow the political atmosphere, individual elections, and spread difficult-to-obtain knowledge about who’s pro-what.

Bigger Picture: Institutionalized Change

The past few years have left a lot of us head-scratching. I wonder if we participated in democracy more, i.e. if all of our carbon offset purchases and all of REC purchases were geared towards pro-climate change mitigation political candidates in the U.S., would we have withdrawn from the Paris Agreement?
Would there have been more voter participation in the 2016 Presidential Election? Would the extremely knowledgeable Latino demographic have favored Clinton more, similar to how they voted for Obama in 2012? Latinos are the most concerned demographic about climate change in the U.S.
So, why were Latino votes lower for Clinton than they were for Obama four years prior? Every year we only know more and more about climate change. Would targeted climate change political campaigning have increased the votes for Clinton? I understand these are broad and simple questions to very complex and nuanced situations, but I think that my money could’ve helped in hindsight.
So for now, I’ll donate 10% of my 2017 income to a pro-climate change mitigation candidate in Colorado’s 2018 elections. If you’re looking to donate more broadly and immediately, POW is a great organization to donate on a national level, as they choose the most promising and important elections to get involved with.
Stay tuned as I read more; let’s keep this conversation going. I’d love to hear what people think. And thanks again for the many article recommendations I received!