#Offsets: like doing the dishes at a restaurant to pay for your meal

Offset credits earned for consumption and carbon emissions

Offset your impact cause there’s a cost to consumption. Photo credit to Aaron Molina on Flickr.

I recently posted about carbon neutral government (CNG) and why I think it’s a policy that, overall, is solid climate action. But I didn’t get to offsets. I promised a post on this, so here it is.

Offsets are the one part of the policy that really twist up the masses that would, if they paid attention to the results the policy is getting, be singing praises of CNG. Instead, they complain about three main things:

  1. Offsets are like paying for sin. That’s lame, and you should just not sin.
  2. Offsets cost money and the public sector should not spend tax dollars that way.
  3. Offset projects cannot be trusted to deliver reductions. Only evil people that sin would create such a thing.

I’ll get to these in another post, but for now, here’s an analogy that might help you understand offsets the way I do:

Let’s say emitting carbon emissions (consuming fossil fuel) is like eating at a restaurant. You’ve chowed down on the steak and prawns and there is a cost to that. The bill comes and it’s hefty. Maybe you shouldn’t have ordered the appy? Or that extra crantini?

Getting the bill is like measuring and reporting out on your emissions – you can see the damage. And next time you might make decisions that will make your consumption less expensive/more efficient.

Now let’s say that, to get the bill to zero, you can pay directly for reductions on the tab (similar to, perhaps, investing in your own operations to reduce energy use), but you’re shy of the total. You still owe a debt.

I’m not sure how often this actually happens, but I’m going to imagine that washing dishes is an option. And washing dishes will offset the remainder of the bill  – it will get you to zero.

After all, there is a cost to your consumption borne by the restaurant (the planet). And it’s not fair that you should eat for free when everyone else likes to eat at this restaurant too. If you do dine and dash, you’re passing on your costly impact to others and likely, the prices on the menu will go up or the restaurant will go out of business and screw us all over.

Wash the dishes. By doing so, you are reducing an equal amount of cost to the restaurant via the labor you are supplying. Like carbon offsets, the impact is the same no matter how it happens – a tonne reduced here is the same as a tonne reduced there. We get to zero.

The beauty of washing dishes: it is cheaper. You just spent $50/hour to pay for the consumption of your meal (reduce your own emissions), but you’re time is only worth about $30/hour and one hour of washing dishes is all it’s taking for the restaurant to recoup its costs and get your tab to zero.

In the real world, CNG requires that organizations do everything they can to reduce emissions first – because that is one of the goals: to make the public sector more efficient with energy in the long run. But this can also cost big bucks. To reduce a tonne of emissions through retrofits or renewable energy, it might cost $55+ per tonne of CO2, whereas offsets from the Pacific Carbon Trust are costing $25 per tonne.

Why are they cheaper? Because the opportunities to reduce emissions across BC in the private sector are more plentiful and diverse that just those in the public sector, and many of the cheaper reductions still remain.

At this point you are probably wondering, “why the heck don’t we just buy offsets then?”… as if there were a linear argument for carbon neutral government. There isn’t. It is a multifaceted approach to reducing emissions in BC. And paying more to reduce public sector emissions directly, rather than offsetting, reduces the need to offset or spend gobs of money on energy in the future.

It’s a process people. And getting a significant portion of our emissions to zero (buildings, fleet, paper, travel) is a framework for getting it done.

If you’re still not sure why we need to get to zero, read my preceding post on this again. If you are a climate change denier, bugger off and watch this: The science is as settled as it needs to be for us to be sure reducing carbon is a priority for human society to be sustainable.

I’ll get into the three reasons why people don’t like offsets in a future post. Stay tuned.



2 Responses

  1. Gotta love the analogy HB… But gonna throw in the one “problem” with doing the dishes…
    (and it’s not a problem in the economy yet)

    Doing the dishes to offset what you owe on the restaurant bill… It’s an option right now because hardly anybody does it. But, eventually if more patrons relied on this option (emitters in the economy chose to offset) there may run out of dishes to be washed. The other risk is you still want the restaurant to staff a dish-washer. And of course, a restaurant can’t pay the landlord rent by sending patrons to wash the landlord’s dishes.

    So, luckily as I said above – we’re not there yet. And when the economy does see an increase in patrons bringing gloves and Palmolive to restaurants, the kitchen labour required to offset the bill will include manually cleaning out the deep-fryer in mid-August.

    i.e. what’s considered an offset project today will be standard practice 10yr from now, and the patron will probably show up to the Keg once per year and bring their own potato.


    • Great add on! Yes. That’s definitely another reason why we can just keep buying offsets (and I’m glad my analogy – limited dishes to wash – fits that in!)

      Of course, your primary goal is ALWAYS to avoid paying offsets (no one likes doing the dishes). They are an incentive to reduce your own emissions, or in the analogies case, pay your bill/moderate your consumption.

      Thanks for chiming in 🙂

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