History recurs as farce. I was thinking today of how offsetting your carbon is like the medieval practice of buying indulgences. With indulgences, a bit of money handed over bought you some excess righteousness- credit from someone who had plenty, a saint say – and used it to redeem souls from bad places. Carbon offsets are 21st century indulgences, spending money in one area in order to redeem transgression in another.
My wife and I, for example, pay extra for zero-carbon electricity and suitably offsetted gas, and we’ve cut a lot of meat out of our diets, in order to generate some indulgence for our flights to Spain (which we also offset) to where both our brothers have flats that need occupying. (I have tried renaming these holidays ‘retreats’, which appears to justify them at a certain level, though I don’t believe it reduces the carbon dioxide emissions.)
Of course indulgences were made up, a theological convenience, and perhaps there is an argument that carbon credits are the same. Just as sin continued to build up on medieval Earth, so carbon dioxide builds up on 21st century Earth.
Indulgences meanwhile deluded and defrauded thousands of peasants, turned grace into mercantilism, and debased the church. What did the human species get in return? St Peter’s in Rome. Nice though St Peter’s is, surely that was not a net gain.
Carbon offsets, on the other hand, go towards replacing all the forest our species has cleared over the years. All those tonnes of growing trees are made up of tonnes of atmospheric carbon, so we’re (eventually) just putting back what our ancestors took out.
But maybe the earth would happily re-wild itself just if it were left alone, without us setting up an industrial-scale tree-planting operation, complete with fossil-fuel powered earth-moving equipment and unbiogdegradable plastic collars round all the little saplings?
Is offsetting a net gain for the human species? A blundering, flawed first attempt to repair damage? Or a convenient cover for sucking out more fossil carbon from under the earth? Be good to know.
My personal guess is that you’ve got to start somewhere. Down the line are ways to replace kerosene with sustainable jet fuel, and petrol with batteries, and natural gas with all the net-zero electric generation tech. Hopefully offsetting is not just a cover for further climate sin, but a small net gain for us and the planet. A slow start is better than no start. In that way they are unlike medieval indulgences.
We can hope.