Robert H. Frank, an economist at Cornell University, has written a defence of carbon offsets, pointing out that it’s actually a good way to reduce emissions:
A New Yorker may worry, for example, that the diesel fuel burned to ship California-grown tomatoes to him in winter will accelerate global warming. But suppose he would be happy to pay $10 more than the cost of shipping those tomatoes rather than eat locally grown root vegetables nine months a year. That would buy more than enough carbon offsets to neutralize the greenhouse gases emitted by shipping the tomatoes. So it would be much better, for him and the planet, if he bought offsets and ate winter tomatoes.
Frank points out that the approach of setting emission limits and then auctioning off allowances for the prescribed level of emissions worked effectively to lower sulphur dioxide levels in the 1970s under the US Clean Air Act. “As people learn more about such an approach, they seem less likely to oppose it,” he writes.
It’s a nice defence of cap and trade schemes, but slightly misses the point that many critics of carbon offsets, such as the FT’s investigation of 2007, were getting at: that the voluntary carbon credits market (those that are traded outside the Kyoto or EU schemes) is vulnerable to fraud, double-counting, or funding carbon reduction that would have happened anyway. (We should note that this problem is not ubiquitous; a recent report for example found that 96 per cent of voluntary offsets were verified to a third-party standard.)
Frank did, however, bring cheatingneutral.com to my attention. It’s a satire on carbon offsets that appears to have been around for a couple of years, but is worth a look if you haven’t seen it: