- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 7, 2007

“Carbon offset”: This is a term we’re hearing with increasing frequency in the global-warming debates. It cropped up last week when Al Gore’s spokeswoman, Kalee Krider, had this to say as she defended the Gore family’s near-industrial personal energy consumption: “They, of course, also do the carbon emissions offset.” What is a carbon offset, and why does Mr. Gore think it inoculates him against charges of hypocrisy?

Carbon offsets are a voluntary tax of sorts which, claim their backers, help to “reduce your carbon footprint to zero.” That, at least, is how the Web site Carbonfund.org describes them. They purport to do this by subsidizing, investing in or otherwise supporting alternative energy projects, reforestation or other activities meant to compensate for human carbon emissions. At Carbonfund.org, offsets cost $5.50 per ton of carbon. The estimated annual “carbon footprint” of an American consumer is 23 tons a year. So, a typical buyer might calculate his or her footprint with reference to gallons of gas consumed, miles flown or homes heated, and then purchase the corresponding offsets.

Without leveling accusations against any particular seller of carbon offsets, it’s noteworthy that the question of whether offsets actually accomplish those goals is being asked with frequency on both the left and right.

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group is on record questioning offsets. Last month, the reliably far-left Transnational Institute published a study, “The Carbon Neutral Myth,” ridiculing the rise of offsets, which it considers to be a modern form of religious indulgence sold by “modern-day Pardoners.” This, from a group that believes “collective action and social change” are needed to combat global warming.

The arguments from the right tend to question the economics. “Subsidizing ‘good’ energy in order to justify using ‘bad’ energy is like eating salad in order to justify eating dessert,” writes economist Arnold Kling this week in the Web magazine TCSDaily.com.

Earlier this year, the United Kingdom vowed to crack down on the proliferation of questionable offset schemes — something which, as offsets catch on in the United States, we too will have to contend with.

The big worry here is whether offsets are simply a way for wealthy people who worry about “carbon footprints” to feel better about their lifestyles without accomplishing much beyond feeling better.

In light of the growing questions whether these schemes accomplish what they say they do, it’s not enough for Mr. Gore to point indignantly to offsets. People want to know how he can justify preaching a carbon gospel which scorns excess energy consumption while his own 20-room Nashville mansion burns through many times more power than the great majority of American families. We’re still waiting to hear.

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