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Carbon Offsets May Ease Our Guilty Consciences But Do They Really Help the Environment?

The problem isn't just that the offset mechanism lacks transparency and consistency; it's also that addressing those issues can easily distract from more meaningful solutions.

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In Bangalore I meet a man who owns a small solar-panel company. He tells me the city has the highest concentration of solar panels in India. Amid the city's birth as a tech haven over the past decade and a half, its population has mushroomed, stretching its power supply beyond the limit. In response, the city began encouraging residents to install solar water heaters. Almost everyone I meet in Bangalore has them; washing with water warmed by the sun has become a mundane part of life. These people have shifted to solar, but they didn't do it for carbon credits or with an eye on potential offset money. They heat their water with solar rays instead of fossil fuels because it delivers heat to the faucet, which alleviates demand for power. This initiative doesn't require wading into the morass of establishing additionality, no certification agent must be brought in, there is no abstract swapping of pollution for offset credits.

The problem isn't just that the offset mechanism lacks transparency and consistency; it's also that addressing those issues can easily distract from more meaningful solutions. Offsets are a way to make global warming fit the needs of the market instead of a way to truly solve climate change. They signal that it's OK to keep devouring energy even though we know it's not. What if we just cut emissions here in the West? What if we start figuring out how to consume less? And what if the West authentically supported developing countries in creating viable, integrated renewable energy networks instead of encouraging them to seek offset money? This direct approach would bring real development, not the market growth (even the "green" kind) that only continues fueling climate change.