Bruce Sterling on carbon offsets

Personal carbon offsets are gonna look kinda twee and silly once we have gigantic, collective programs to drain carbon out of the sky. It’s not about the personal emissions of the living — we gotta remove the emissions that have been hanging over our heads since World War One.

It’s gonna take people a while to realize that we’ve got to forget “footprints” and live in a less-than-zero carbon handprint. But we’ll get to that realization, because there’s no other choice. This kinda stuff pretends that removing pollution is a personal, moral choice. It isn’t. It isn’t any more a personal moral choice than some monster Greenhouse firestorm threatening to incinerate San Diego.

Planet-wide problems require planet-wide solutions. We should, of course, try to cut our carbon footprint, but such efforts can be illusory.

An example: We just moved from a 2100 sq ft house in Connecticut heated by heating oil and with air conditioning to a 750 sq ft apartment in the Bay Area with no air conditioning and mass transit across the street.  Our carbon footprint has dropped dramatically, but since someone bought the house from us, the net carbon footprint probably remains the same.

DJ at AsymptoticLife has documented how they’ve dramatically cut their carbon emissions, which is all to the good. But Sterling is correct, we need to remove the carbon that has been in the atmosphere for decades too. And that can’t be done on a personal basis.


  1. Assuming there were such a technology, it’d make a good basis for a carbon tax. Make the tax on the production of a ton of CO2 equal to the cost of removing a net ton, or better yet, 110% of the cost of removal, so we can make up lost ground.

  2. Bob is right: we need to start REDUCING the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, and so far we haven’t even been able to slow the rate of INCREASE. But until we have global solutions, preventing/removing carbon from the atmosphere IS a personal moral decision.

    My wife and I use carbon offsets of three kinds: investments in wind & biomethane plants to prevent emissions, buying blocks of wind power (technically this isn’t an offset, it’s a reduction), and planting trees to actually remove existing CO2 from the atmosphere. At this point, we offset all of our (reduced) household emissions, plus an extra 2-1/2 tons of the 12 tons of CO2 the U.S. economy generates on our behalf.

    But let’s not forget: the FIRST line of defense is reduction. Most people and most businesses could cut their emissions in half with very little cost or effort. We did– but our target, as yet unachieved, is a 70% cut. And think about this: by cutting demand in half, not only would you save money from using less energy, but prices would decline because of lower demand, saving us all even more!

    Cutting our emissions in half is not enough, but that’s likely to be about all we can achieve without government assistance. And if we won’t do our half, what gives us the right to complain when government won’t do its half? Get out your sunscreen, it’s going to be a hot summer.

  3. Quite frankly personal carbon offsets aren’t going to make much difference at all. You only need do the macro energy and carbon sums.

    The protocol will vary from country to country and region to region but the main game is to close all coal fired power stations and don’t build any more. Instead of coal use natural gas where available while you stagger the transition to renewables. — and the mix of those will vary.

    Here in Australia the main individual/unit switch has to be in the generation of hot water which is the main drag on domestic energy.Much of the country can do that via solar heating with natural gas supplementation. In cold climates heating has to be sourced not from electricity but from other supplies — even wood, biogasse, natural gas(a transition source), etc — rather than oil or electricity(from coal).

    So outside of better insulation there’s very little in the individual consumer’s hands unless they want to pay for the switch big time in retro fitting their residences. And thats’ the problem: who pays?

    And thats’ why personal carbon offsets are so regressive and will not work.

    Building regulation, enforced appliance ratings, etc all have a role in reducing energy consumption but as well as reducing consumption we have to change the way energy is produced.

    Transport in comparison is a no brainer. But if we can deal with the stationary electricity supplies as the primary and initial challenge then we’re on a roll.

    Thats’ the rub. Miss that prioritization and you’ll drown in details and fall victim to Utopian schemes. It’s not about re-inventing the wheel. This is doable with current technologies so long as the will is there to do it. and “the market” is not allowed to rule. That means it is not a tech fix but a social and political one.

    And if you wanted to spend money to save the planet don’t play funny buggers with carbon offsets: donate to your local climate change campaign group.

    However, the raw figures for the US —Here — suggest how dependent you lot are on oil! So it has to be a double whammy: coal and oil.

  4. While I agree with Dave that macro solutions are essential, I have yet to analyze a home or office that couldn’t cut its energy use in half with basic conservation measures. One office I analyzed could save 85% of its energy! So unless we want to empower police to arrest power wasters, half the battle IS at the individual level.

    As for carbon offsets, I fail to see how, when I help finance an alternative fuel power plant in the U.S., that somehow doesn’t result in less coal, oil, or natural gas burned in other power plants (assuming demand remains stable). I could see arguing that personal offsets are less efficient than a government macro plan (which we don’t have and probably won’t for a number of years), but regressive? That means it moves us backward, and I don’t see how that could be the case.

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