CheatNeutral — a funny but limited analogy

My friend, Dan M, sent me a very funny link. CheatNeutral pokes fun at the carbon offset industry by comparing it to people paying to offset their cheating.

I wrote back to Dan. This below is a slightly edited version of what I sent.

This is very funny. I’ve sent it onwards to five of my classmates. We’re working with an architecture firm on the legal/technical/social/economic/environmental management of carbon offset projects for renewables in building projects around the world.

The analogy between carbon offset and cheat offset is a tad questionable, though. Cheat offsetting is clearly a ridiculous concept and it’s meant to highlight the problems with carbon offsetting, namely that relying on offsetting does not provide incentives for reducing the source of the problem. However, some of the ‘outrage’ from cheat offsetting is that cheating is a moral issue. More and more, pollution has become a moral issue (‘It’s evil or irresponsible to pollute at any level’) but the morality of pollution is by no means universally accepted.

There are still large sectors of society that believes that there may be an optimal level of pollution and appropriate compensation for pollution. This is completely different to, say, if a Chief of Police comes out and says that their crime fighting budget has been allocated based on a risk assessment that has determined the optimal number of child molestations. That’s because child molestations (and cheating) are moral issues.

It’s kind of like the difference between the Australian government views drug use (‘Just say no’) and the Netherlands treatment of drug use as a health and social problem. Or the way medical researchers say that the costs of some animal suffering are justified by the benefits from testing on animals, while to animal rights activists, there is no ‘optimal’ amount of animal suffering.

So the key difference between carbon offsetting and cheat offsetting is that carbon offsetting can work. It does suck carbon out of the air. It could help mitigate global warming.

(Note that in Europe and other places, carbon offset projects include replacing fossil fuels with renewables or more efficient appliances. It doesn’t just cover sequestration by growing trees or pumping CO2 into the ground).

Of course, we can’t rely on carbon offsetting because the fundamental problem is that we live in a world that encourages (even mandates) increasing consumption and growth. Even if we were to eliminate CO2 emissions, current CO2 generating activities have other environmental impacts that cause problems, like resource depletion, toxic pollution, habitat destruction and so on. Offsetting can’t address these problems. Even eco-efficiency can’t address these problems (see Jevons Paradox). I have come to believe that cold nuclear fusion (clean limitless energy) will just allow us to destroy the earth even faster.

To me, it would have been more correct to have compared carbon offsetting with, say, a reliance on chemotherapy. Chemotherapy doesn’t generally have a moral dimension. It’s effective in many situations but there are plenty of negative side effects — and surely it is ‘better’ to address cancer triggers.

Of course, that wouldn’t have made as funny a website as CheatNeutral.

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