Penance for Earthly Sins

Wed Aug. 17, 2005 12:09 PM PDT

A friend recently bought a shiny new ride, and was ecstatic to be ditching her old car and its electrical system headaches. "The only thing I feel bad about," her voice lowering, "is that it's one of those... SUVs." Today Slate profiles a couple of companies that sell some peace of mind to people like her. If you hand over a bit of cash, they'll spend the money in a way that will offset the carbon emissions from your new SUV, house, or vacation air travel. The plans differ. One company, TerraPass, acts like a venture capital fund, providing cash to clean energy or carbon abatement efforts. Another buys up carbon credits at a small green-minded exchange, hopefully taking them off the market.

But consumers already have many good, effective ways of reducing their carbon impact. (Take public transport, buy a smaller house, etc.) While kicking a few dollars towards abatement of the carbon sins of others will help, there are many other tools at our immediate disposal. It's only because the impacts of any single individual's actions to reduce carbon impact are hard to observe that people think this is a solution. Warning, imperfect analogy ahead: If I routinely dump garbage on the street, does an annual check to a highway beautification fund absolve me? Sure, my donation can't hurt, but it ignores my responsibility for the original problem.

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