The ethics of carbon offsets

December 26, 2013

I have recently become aware of, which apparently lets you burnish your carbon standing via support for family planning. Carbon offsets are fraught, but overall it seems a good thing to be thinking this way. Reduce the input and increase the carbon sponge. I am in favor.

Family planning to reduce the population growth rate has many obvious benefits. On a local level it improves the life of individuals and families. Population planning and control improves regional economic development in many cases. I am in support!

The organization supports projects in both developed and developing countries. So it is not only about excessive energy consuming people buying their way into feeling good via the developing world.

But it feels that way to me. It feels squicky. I’m having trouble figuring out exactly why….

18 Responses to “The ethics of carbon offsets”

  1. RHWoodman Says:

    Now that’s an interesting idea, and I had an immediate icky reaction. After thinking about it a bit, I decided to offer my thoughts, for what it’s worth.

    For me, my immediate reaction was “This is too personal an act to tie to saving the whole planet.” I think that may come out of being an American, where we live our lives saturated in a society suffering the painful discordance between a hypersexualized society and extremely conservative (some would say prudish) sexual mores that come out of our Puritan history. Even if we try to rebel against or deny that discordance, it still affects us, so perhaps that is where the icky feelings come from.

    I would also note that countries like Japan, the U.S., and China, along with much of Europe, face the real possibility of demographic implosion. Japan is staring it in the face. The U.S. and Western Europe are dodging it solely through the reality of legal and illegal immigration. China will have to face it in about 20-30 years; it’s part of why the Chinese government just relaxed its one-child policy a bit more (they’re trying for a soft landing instead of an implosion).

    Effective *global* leadership on population growth and immigration would be an immense help in curbing both climate change and global population growth, but I’m not going to hold my breath for that eventuality. This popoffsets program may be as good a start as we’ll see for awhile.


  2. Ryan Says:

    It strikes me as icky because it’s implicitly saying “I can get away with doing X because I’m preventing other people from living. Even though family planning isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) coercive, and population growth is an issue, it gives the illusion that you can trade driving around a hummer for an extra kid in India.

    If it was framed as a charity rather than an offset, it would sound a lot better to me (since it’s just making the world a better place, not a transaction to allow you to do X).


  3. DrugMonkey Says:

    Demographic implosion? Well that’s one way to describe the financial Ponzi scheme we live within. We’re not really talking about any population collapse, but rather the sustaining of a larger population of retired/elderly/useless on the backs of a smaller working population. Soylent Green is the solution. Or Logan’s Run. These problems have been solved already.


  4. dr24hours Says:

    My sister once told me that she considers one of the saving graces of humanity is that every time women (from a population-level perspective) gain more autonomy over the child-bearing process they’ve chosen (again, at the aggregate, not individual, level) to have fewer children rather than more.

    I’m a little uncomfortable with a website that appears to assuage first-world guilt by trying to reduce third-world population growth, even if it is done through family planning capabilities which is welcomed by the recipients. But, on the other hand, providing people with much-desired reproductive freedom can’t really be that bad a thing, right?

    I dunno. I’m not sure how to separate my own privilege from my thoughts of this topic, either. It’s difficult for me to see where my own biases might lie.


  5. Busy Says:

    We’re not really talking about any population collapse,

    Yes we are. Japan’s population is dropping a net 150K a year and the number will be twice that in 5 years. Ditto for Germany where population today is estimated to be 1.3million below its peak in 2005. Presently they have 250K more deaths than births every year though this is somewhat counteracted by massive migration movements within the EU.


  6. Ola Says:

    @Busy, @DM, you’re both right.

    In the major developed nations, the numbers of their traditional*** populations are declining. This is true for Japan, US, UK, Italy, Germany, France, and a host of other post-industrial nations. It’s bought about mainly by the fact that when people become educated, they have fewer children. The nauseating but sometimes correct Pat Buchanan even had a book on it some years ago…

    ***Yes I realize that’s a charged word, but I’m talking about the populations that comprised the majority in those countries for the past 100 years or so, while being fully deferential to the fact that they weren’t the first ones there.

    However, these declines are being countered by growth in other sectors of the population exhibiting high fecundity. In the US primarily hispanics (with the result that by 2050 or shortly after Spanish will be the dominant language in this country), and in western Europe the population is being offset by immigration from North Africa and the Middle East. So yeah, Japan is getting smaller, but don’t for a minute think that they won’t be countering that with immigration – someone’s got to look after all those aging folks, and young immigrants on low wages fit the bill quite well. It’s the same in the US – the only way you and I (and the current generation of workers) are ever going to be able to afford to retire is with a fresh influx of young blood to pay the social security taxes to support us.

    Back on topic… The ick created by this “charity” is multi-fold. In addition to the “making white rich folks feel good about themselves by not allowing poor Africans to reproduce” factor, there’s the impact of Jevons’ paradox ( on the long term effectiveness…. if a bunch of people in a poor place get paid not to have kids, that just makes it easier for the ones outside of the program to have more, and they will more than make up for any environmental gains due to the first group abstaining.

    The same is true for just about any environmental and consumption pattern. If you drive a prius, that’s great, but the gas you’re saving is being gobbled up by 10 more Chinese folks who can now afford to drive because gas is cheaper, thanks to you. If you ride the bus, congratulations – you’re making is easier for the folks who refuse to get out of their cars, to stay in their cars. If you have an energy efficient furnace, by driving down demand you’re indirectly making gas more cheaply available, so people will find other ways to use it and overall net gas usage will increase over time. Think LED Christmas lights – has their advent led to less lights on people’s houses? No, we all use a shit-ton more lights now because they’re cheap to run, so overall energy use from them just keeps climbing, and in a few years any gains from efficiency are lost. That’s Jevons in action.

    Simple rebound economics apply to populations too – if someone doesn’t have kids, someone else will, because as humans we like to fill gaps. We like to consume what’s available. Millions of years of evolution has taught us to make hay while the sun shines, and a few thousand years of having to get along in large groups and think beyond the end of our noses, isn’t going to change those ingrained patterns.


  7. miko Says:

    I agree there is something ultra-creepy about this, but can’t quite put my finger on it. It is a worthy cause, and I can see how they are trying to jazz up their fundraising by making it an economic game, which might work. But yet…

    Everyone talks about what a disaster shifting demographics in Japan is, and how stagnation has been “destroying” their economy basically since the 80s bubble burst. I’ve been to Japan and the booming Asian “miracle” economies that the US economic press constantly gets boners over, and I can tell you without the slightest pause where I’d rather live (or be born, or die). It is long past time to stop thinking that permanent economic expansion and growth can be or should be the norm. Of course, we won’t stop thinking it, which is why we’re fucked.


  8. drugmonkey Says:

    wikipedia on japan : ” For March 2012 the population estimate was 127,650,000[1] making it the world’s tenth most populated country.”

    and on germany: “According to the first census since the reunification, Germany’s population was counted to be 80,219,695 on May 9, 2011,[2] making it the 16th most populous country in the world.”

    A change in growth rate and even a modest reduction in population is in NO WAY deserving of any sort of apocalyptic description along the lines of an implosion or collapse. This sort of concern about demographics comes, again, from the financial/productivity/population Ponzi scheme. full stop. it is all about how many working people there are versus non-working people in a nation, i.e., entirely arbitrary regionalism when we are talking the human species.


  9. Busy Says:

    I get it now. Yes, “implosion” is overdoing it. Still, it is more than “a modest reduction in population”.

    Japan’s population will drop 20% over the next 35 years. In fact, the UN’s low variant, which so far has been the closest to reality, has the world population dropping 20% from its peak around 2045 to 2100.


  10. Well that’s one way to describe the financial Ponzi scheme we live within.

    Dude, you obviously have no idea what a Ponzi scheme is. The fact that the viability of modern industrial economies is based on steady population growth–which obviously cannot continue forever and has physical constrainsts–does not make it a Ponzi schemes. Yes, there are severe problems with how we configure our economy, but it doesn’t help anyone understand and mitigate those problems to hyperbolically mischaracterize it as a Ponzi scheme.


  11. dsks Says:

    As others have pointed out, we’re not headed for a general overpopulation problem. Globally, we’re no just a sniff above replacement right now, with projections predicting that we’ll drop below that in the next 30 yrs.

    btw it is by no means settled that a population contraction will usher in the end of capitalism, the relationship between economic growth and population growth is pretty complicated by all accounts. As it is, one of the chief predicted problems of population decline, labor scarcity, is already likely to be mitigated by automation (to the point where, even with a population decline, we’ll likely have job scarcity rather than labor scarcity).

    But by then the robots will have taken over, so what the hell.


  12. drugmonkey Says:

    How is that not a Ponzi scheme PP?


  13. clueless noob Says:

    Viewed from a certain perspective it could have a eugenics-y feel, which might explain the squickiness. After all, your donation helps prevent the birth of a poor, likely non-white, person in the developing world, or in a less-advantaged population in the developed world. By no means do I think that this is the goal of the organization — these improvements in women’s reproductive autonomy are needed — but there’s a certain amount of Sanger-baggage that attaches.


  14. kristie Says:

    I am in support of family planning too


  15. olympiasepiriot Says:

    Too bad we can’t also target it to places that are rapidly losing or have already lost a broad spectrum of access to women’s health clinics (that famously provide *all* family planning options) — like Texas or South Dakota or Mississippi in the US.

    Access to family planning is useful. The idea of linking it to “offfsetting” carbon production elsewhere turns this into a commodity exchange which can, in certain ways, be directly linked to a colonialist economy. But, again, providing access to services that people want and are not imposed by well-meaning outsiders (or grumpy, resentful outsiders like I am … see my first paragraph) is helpful.


  16. Ola Says:

    Off but on topic…

    Does anyone seriously buy into that whole carbon offset bullshit? Some guy who’s been farming organic goats or growing heirloom variety tomatoes for the past 50 years suddenly gets wind of a new scheme to bilk the public out of money, so he can keep on doing the same thing, labels it a “carbon offset”, and the rest of us can keep on flying around in jets feeling less guilty. Who the fuck are you trying to kid?

    Would ANY of these proposed carbon offset schemes (tree planting, saving rainforests, etc) actually NOT happen without the extra cash from the guilt-ridden types? If you really give a shit about carbon, maybe consider not flying at all, or actually making life-changes that have an impact (like going vegetarian, ditching your car, moving to a densely populated city or at east closer to work). Oh, but those things actually take effort.

    Hey here’s an idea – because I’ve lived in densely populated cities all my life, I can take my “right” to live in the sprawling suburbs (aka the ‘merkin dream”) and sell it to someone else as a carbon offset? Or maybe I can sell the fact that I’ve decided to stop at 2 kids and not have a 3rd – that’s a carbon offset right? Or perhaps even the fact I’m at work today so not burning fuel to keep the house warm – that’s gotta be worth something?


  17. olympiasepiriot Says:

    PS to my post above.

    I think that this ‘eugenics’ claim is not appropriate in this case because options are being offered to people, no one is being forced to undergo abortions, sterilization, nor is anyone waking up from a caesarian section to find she has also been given a hysterectomy. It is possible to say that people making decisions like whether or not to have children based on finances smacks of coercion; but, one person’s tight financial straits can be another person’s abundance.

    Also, I propose that it is important to remember that there are just as many reasons for a poor person to limit the number of children she might have as there are reasons for a rich person. Ambitions, dreams, plans, unhappy partnerships, medical dangers, and so forth are not limited to the wealthy.

    It is also true that lack of security — financial and other — can lead to a increase in child-bearing as if one is fearful that one’s children will not live to adulthood, one might have more to increase the possibilities.

    Not funding family planning is not going to take away all these things.


  18. Busy Says:

    Does anyone seriously buy into that whole carbon offset bullshit?

    Since this post seems to be focusing on questioning some well accepted truths, how about this

    Which is the most efficient means of passenger transport, in terms of MPG, which has consistently improved in efficiency for the last 30 years, continues to do so today, consumes only 3% of fossil fuels and is difficult to replace with a more efficient alternative? Long distance flying.

    What is the least efficient means of transport, with little improvement over the last 30 years, consumes > 7% of fossil fuels and is easily replaceable by a more efficient alternative? SUVs and non-work-related pick up drivers.

    Which one is the one “progressive” people focus on? Flying, of course.


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