The Market for Feeling Good About Oneself

Markets are wonderful. If there is a demand, markets will arise to fill it. Including the desire to feel good about oneself.

How else should one view the “carbon offset” business? It offers the obvious appeal of “cheap grace.” You want to continue sinning but find a way to assuage the twinges of guilt that you feel. So you pay someone who claims to be counteracting your sin. I’m promiscuous, you’re a virgin, so it kind of balances out.

In today’s guilt-ridden world carbon offsets have become big business. Reports the Los Angeles Times:

The Oscar-winning film “An Inconvenient Truth” touted itself as the world’s first carbon-neutral documentary.

The producers said that every ounce of carbon emitted during production — from jet travel, electricity for filming and gasoline for cars and trucks — was counterbalanced by reducing emissions somewhere else in the world. It only made sense that a film about the perils of global warming wouldn’t contribute to the problem.


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Carbon dioxide emissions


Carbon dioxide emissions

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Co-producer Lesley Chilcott used an online calculator to estimate that shooting the film used 41.4 tons of carbon dioxide and paid a middleman, a company called Native Energy, $12 a ton, or $496.80, to broker a deal to cut greenhouse gases elsewhere. The film’s distributors later made a similar payment to neutralize carbon dioxide from the marketing of the movie.

It was a ridiculously good deal with one problem: So far, it has not led to any additional emissions reductions.

Beneath the feel-good simplicity of buying your way to carbon neutrality is a growing concern that the idea is more hype than solution.

According to Native Energy, money from “An Inconvenient Truth,” along with payments from others trying to neutralize their emissions, went to the developers of a methane collector on a Pennsylvanian farm and three wind turbines in an Alaskan village.

As it turned out, both projects had already been designed and financed, and the contributions from Native Energy covered only a minor fraction of their costs. “If you really believe you’re carbon neutral, you’re kidding yourself,” said Gregg Marland, a fossil-fuel pollution expert at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee who has been watching the evolution of the new carbon markets. “You can’t get out of it that easily.”

The race to save the planet from global warming has spawned a budding industry of middlemen selling environmental salvation at bargain prices.

The companies take millions of dollars collected from their customers and funnel them into carbon-cutting projects, such as tree farms in Ecuador, windmills in Minnesota and no-till fields in Iowa.

In return, customers get to claim the reductions, known as voluntary carbon offsets, as their own. For less than $100 a year, even a Hummer can be pollution-free — at least on paper.

Driven by guilt, public relations or genuine concern over global warming, tens of thousands of people have purchased offsets to zero out their carbon impact on the planet.

“It made me feel better about driving my car,” said Nicky Tenpas, a 29-year-old occupational therapist from Hermosa Beach, who bought offsets to neutralize emissions from the Jeep she always wanted.

You have to appreciate Ms. Tenpas’ attitude. I want to buy a jeep, she thinks. But I’ve been told that doing so will destroy the environment and consign humankind to death and desolation–or at least a slightly warmer winter. If I toss a few bucks at a guilt entrepreneur, however, I can feel good about myself while wrecking the world. To whom do I write the check??

Is this a great country, or what!?