Carbon offsets remind me of nothing so much as indulgences, those infamous get-out-of-purgatory cards that helped set off the Protestant Reformation. Buying offsets doesn’t change the fact that I’ve emitted more than my fair share.
But in today’s world, offsets do make sense. We emit CO2 and other greenhouse gases locally but once they are up in the atmosphere, they blanket the whole Earth.
Some types of air pollution stay relatively local: think acid rain or smog. Greenhouse gases, however, rise high in the atmosphere and spread around the planet.
Carbon offsets are based on a simple idea: if I need to emit more than my fair share, I can pay someone else—anywhere on the globe—to emit less. Many carbon offset projects are meant to help people in developing countries leapfrog over the fossil fuel stage. You can choose offsets that support rural electrification via renewables, for instance, or clean cookstove technologies. You can also choose offsets that support education for women and girls, or access to clean water, or food security, or a host of other forward-thinking issues.
Carbon offsets buy us time to move towards renewables without digging ourselves deeper into the carbon hole. But they only work if we also commit to taking the next steps. For traveling musicians, that means working with industry partners to minimize emissions through routing, and choosing low-emissions modes of transportation where possible. For promoters and audiences, that means hiring and supporting local musicians.
Offsets are not a long-term solution to climate change. Reducing is always better than offsetting.
But in the meantime, as long as “away” gigs are more plentiful than local ones, and solar-powered planes are still in the test stages, I’m buying offsets.