Robert H. Frank writes in the New York Times that carbon offsets can be one way to address our personal carbon emissions. And he has an effective answer to the sites that claim carbon offsets are only saps to people's conscience.
Yet carbon offsets have drawn sharp criticism, even ridicule. A British Web site called Cheat Neutral (www.cheatneutral.com) parodies the concept — by offering a service under which someone who wants to cheat on his partner can pay someone else who will refrain from committing an act of infidelity. The site’s founders say they wanted to use humor to demonstrate why the market for carbon offsets is a moral travesty.
...AT last count, Cheat Neutral, the British infidelity neutralization Web site, said it had offset 65,768 cheats, and had recruited a roster of “9,002 faithful people ready to neutralize your misdemeanors.” The Web site draws out the parallel this way: “When you cheat on your partner you add to the heartbreak, pain, and jealousy in the atmosphere.” Cheat Neutral claims that its plan “neutralizes the pain and unhappy emotion and leaves you with a clear conscience.”
Actually, no. Only you will know whether your conscience is clear, but it is certain that higher rates of marital fidelity in London do nothing to eliminate the anguish caused by straying spouses in Manchester. In contrast, one person’s reduction in carbon dioxide emissions anywhere on the planet fully offsets anyone else’s contribution to the total.
His last point is the important one.
And in my opinion, when we buy carbon offsets, we can actively provide incentives for building cleaner energy systems. Here's one way that can work.
Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) are sold by operators of wind farms and other clean energy generators based on how much energy they produce. For each megawatt (MW) of renewable energy delivered to the electricity “grid,” these operators can sell one REC on the energy market. RECs, therefore, provide a financial incentive for operators to produce renewable energy.
Since utilities are required to accept as much renewable energy as the operators produce, the more renewable power that is delivered to the grid, the less non-renewable (fossil fuel) energy is needed. And, given that the production and use of fossil fuel energy is the biggest contributor of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other global warming gases, the less of it that’s produced the better, and the cleaner our air will be. Thus, RECs encourage the development of energy technology that helps prevent global warming
(h/t Mark Thoma)