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Carbon Ethics
By Toby Ord

I have recently noticed a strange asymmetry between our attitudes to avoiding climate change and to eliminating poverty. Both are important moral concerns and both can be advanced through private donations. In the case of eliminating poverty, we can do so via donations to any of a wide number of aid organizations. In the case of climate change, we can do so via payments to carbon offsetting companies.

It is true that some such schemes are of dubious value, but we are beginning to get reliable authorities that check up on the companies (see the Gold Standard) and there are many ways in which they really can reduce carbon emissions. For example, many people in developing countries use highly polluting stoves and water pumps because they are a bit cheaper. Offset companies can pay the difference, thus achieving substantial carbon savings at a relatively small cost.

For example, as part of a very nice summary of the modern state of offsetting, Climate Care claim:

It costs an average of £12,000 for a home solar panel (2kW). This will take over 2000 years to make the same carbon savings as the treadle pump project will make in a single year with the same investment. What’s more, over 300 India families will be helped off the poverty line.

How can they get such great efficiencies? The answer is that there is very little done on carbon reduction in the developing world and there is thus a lot of low hanging fruit. These opportunities will eventually all be taken, and the cost per tonne of carbon saving will become more equal in the developing and developed worlds, but for now we are much better off paying money to an offset company than buying solar panels or pretty much any first world efficiency measure. We really can pay to reduce the world’s carbon emissions just as we can pay to save lives or cure blindness.

Now we come to the strange asymmetries. Firstly, carbon offsetting appears to be universally done by for-profit companies. In contrast, poverty reduction appears to be universally done by not-for-profit organisations (if you know of any exceptions to either rule, please put them in the comments). Why the difference? It is true that profit making companies might be more efficient as they have additional market incentives, but then why aren’t there any for-profit companies that take your money and distribute it in poverty reduction programs?

Then there is the fact that people think we should offset emissions only to counter our own personal levels: if it takes £50 to offset my emissions for a year, then I apparently should pay this much in offsets. But why stop there? We know that we need more reductions than we are getting and many people are concerned about it. So why is there no call to offset further? In general, why isn’t carbon offsetting treated like any other charitable contribution?

As a final note, the UK government wants to stop climate change and is willing to spend a lot of money on expensive high tech methods to reduce local carbon emissions, why won’t they instead pay this money to make a much bigger reduction in emissions in the developing world?


  1. 1. Posted by Jeff Huggins | September 22, 2007 1:57 am

    Toby, great post and important questions.

    Just a few thoughts to consider from the other side of the pond (US) . . .

    • My impression here is that most people do not trust that carbon offsets will provide an effective solution. More accurately (I think), most people probably do not trust the “system” and companies associated with implementing, managing, and monitoring carbon offsets. Trust in government and in many members of the corporate sector is so low here (in many cases, for good reason) that the idea of giving money to some entity who claims that it will have trees planted in some faraway place that would otherwise not have been planted, and will also ensure the long lives of those trees, stretches one’s ability to suspend disbelief. And, the realization (even if only subconscious) that the purpose of this giving is often (in part, at least) to allow one to feel less bad about maintaining one’s own high level of carbon release also tends to undermine the whole enterprise, for many people.

    • Although some genuinely well-intentioned people may be buying carbon offsets at this stage (I assume?), my guess is that a large portion of those buying carbon offsets are doing so to avoid guilty feelings and to avoid having to take measures that would be more effective (but also require more action) at lowering carbon emissions. Over 400 years ago, Michel de Montaigne observed: ‘They who in my time have attempted to correct the manners of the world by new opinions, reform seeming vices; but the essential vices they leave as they were, if indeed they do not augment them, and augmentation is therein to be feared; we defer all other well doing upon the account of these external reformations, of less cost and greater show, and thereby expiate good cheap, for the other natural, consubstantial, and intestine vices.’ (From Montaigne’s essay ‘Of Repentance’, as translated by Charles Cotton, in Selected Essays, published by Borders Classics). Carbon offsets at this stage seem to many to be more of ‘greater show’ than of real substance, i.e., than of more real solutions, and the danger (if they are not rigorous and also accompanied by other larger solutions) is that offsetting in this way may cause us to delay or avoid taking more effective action.

    • Of course, purchasing an offset in order to help the general global climate feels much less ‘personal’ and ‘direct’ than giving money to an individual person (whose face you can see, perhaps) to help her/him avoid starvation, or giving it to a charity you can trust to do so.

    Given the vital importance of the climate change problem, I’d like to suggest another dimension to this post, or perhaps another post entirely, regarding the following that I’ve observed, at least in the US: Over here, it seems that many leaders believe that the ‘marketplace’ will naturally address the issue, if left alone, with only slight public (government) incentives or regulations. Many of those same people argue for very little government involvement, or for only modest carbon caps (with credits being traded among corporations), and hardly anyone (in industry or in the media) is strongly pushing for a carbon tax. Not infrequently, an individual essentially argues ‘the market will handle it’ and ‘no carbon tax’ in the same argument, essay, or newspaper article. But, there is an inconsistency here, is there not? According to rather basic economics, the ‘marketplace’ can’t be expected to lead to outcomes that are reasonably responsible and that take into account all factors unless those factors are adequately reflected in prices. In other words, if the costs of cleaning excess carbon emissions from the air, or of keeping excessive carbon out of emissions in the first place, are not included in energy prices, we shouldn’t expect a largely unregulated marketplace to address the problem, however creative people might be.

    The issue is this: Why don’t economists respond (strongly and clearly) to such arguments? Every time a leading politician, or another economist, or a policy ‘expert’, or a corporate leader or public relations department, offers to the public a view that suggests that the ‘marketplace’ will address the climate change issue if left alone and, at the same time, argues against a carbon tax or a highly rigorous (and well-implemented) system of carbon caps, other economists should eagerly, clearly, and publicly point out the (big) logical problem in that argument. Why don’t economists speak out on this aspect of the issue? Where are the Oxford economists on this issue? Of course, if you know Oxford economists, please point out this issue (or this post) to them. In the US, it seems to me, economists don’t seem to speak out much about global climate change (or the media don’t cover them much) except to point out the simple costs and ‘benefits’ we may face in the future climate-altered environment or to point out the economic costs and dangers associated with actually trying to address the issue. I don’t believe that I’ve seen any economist (in the major print or TV media) clearly remind people (or let them know in the first place) that the ‘marketplace’ will not magically address a problem, responsibly, unless prices somehow reflect all factors that should be addressed. This lack of speaking out (on the part of the economics profession) is shocking to me. Consider: If companies that build public bridges all-of-a-sudden announced that they would start doing so without considering (and while purposefully ignoring) the effects of gravity, university physicists would (or at least should) speak out quickly and strongly against this proposed new approach to bridge-building, pointing out the fallacy of the logic along the way. Where are the economists?

    Great post. Sorry for the digression.

  2. 2. Posted by S. Matthew Liao | September 24, 2007 11:32 pm

    I think that the asymmetries may be explained by the fact that people feel negatively responsible for the emissions they have produced, but not for the poverty in the world that they think they have not caused.

    Since they feel negatively responsible for their emissions, for-profit companies can exploit this feeling of guilt to get them to buy all kinds of products. The negative responsibility account also explains why people tend to think that they should offset omissions only to counter their own personal or national levels.

    Of course, a consequentialist would deny the relevance of the act/omission distinction. So, from a consequentialist perspective, these asymmetries may seem simply irrational and unjustified.

  3. 3. Posted by Toby Ord | September 25, 2007 4:19 pm

    Matthew, I agree with your explanation that people feel responsible for their emissions, however it doesn’t really explain everything. For a nonconsequentialist, there might be a particularly strong duty to set right your past harms, but even a nonconsequentialist can see that it is better if even more is offset, just as it is better the more you give to aid organizations. However everyone seems to stop right at the point of zero net harm for emissions, yet to go beyond that point for international aid.

    I was not entirely clear in my post as to whether I was puzzled by the human psychology, by the folk morality that lead to the asymmetries, or by the object moral issue. I suppose I’m interested in all three.

    I’m also aware that few people see the situation as inherently symmetric with a couple of strange broken symmetries. Instead, most people think these things are totally different. However, in that I think they are mistaken.

  4. 4. Posted by Toby Ord | September 25, 2007 4:35 pm


    it will have trees planted in some faraway place that would otherwise not have been planted, and will also ensure the long lives of those trees, stretches one’s ability to suspend disbelief

    There have indeed been serious problems with the tree planting approaches (particularly due to the time scales involved and the lack of accountability. That’s why some of these new offsetting initiatives which subsidize clean stoves and pumps and even light bulbs for the poor are so interesting. Ditto for the new organizations aiming to monitor the offsetting companies.

    offsetting in this way may cause us to delay or avoid taking more effective action

    The current evidence seems to be that if you use a sensible and certified offsetting company, then offsetting can be much more effective than direct action. One of the old criticisms of offsetting was that it didn’t stop more carbon being released into the atmosphere, but it can do just that if you subsidize clean equipment elsewhere. It is evidently better to spend a sum of money to eliminate a certain amount of emissions elsewhere by offsetting than to spend that same sum to eliminate half that many emissions from your own factories. We should go after the low hanging fruit first, even if it is not in our own backyards (too mix my metaphors like an old episode of Yes, Minister…).

    I agree with you that carbon taxes of some sort seem like a very good idea. They might be even better if linked to some of these sensible forms of offsetting.

  5. 5. Posted by Jeff Huggins | September 25, 2007 5:37 pm

    Toby, thanks for your response and your helpful observations. To be clear, I do agree that it is vitally important to face and address global climate change. And, I agree that grabbing low-hanging fruit is an important first step and a helpful part of the larger solution. And I agree (though I’m not an expert on this front) that, in many cases, the ratio between impact and investment might be much higher with some of the technologies and investments you mention than with other uses of the same funds. And, I agree that some carbon offsetting opportunities (implemented via carbon credit trading or purchases) are probably very helpful, i.e., those that are genuine, well-intentioned, effective, reasonably efficient, and so forth.

    But, from this side of the pond, I’m concerned about several problems, some of which would seem to undermine at least some (and perhaps many) carbon offsetting programs. For example, there isn’t an overall agreement among countries that sets carbon emission limits. Thus, if carbon emissions are reduced from one source in a country (via offsets or contributions), that government (or population) can still generate more carbon emissions in other ways, and perhaps that much more (i.e., more than enough to counter or even overwhelm the original offset). So, it seems to me that we have to address this issue first, or (at least) in close parallel with these other measures.

    Another issue that people don’t seem to be talking about (at least not much) is population. For example, if all existing humans reduce carbon emissions (from today’s level) by a total amount that equates to 20% per capita globally (just to pick a random number), that improvement would be wiped out by population growth of 25%, I think (depending on a few other assumptions).

    I’m not trying to delay valid measures, of course. I’m trying to speed up the larger process. I do have a large concern that people and governments might delay facing (and addressing) the large issue, in a big-picture and appropriately “aggressive” way, if they get the feeling that the problem is being addressed sufficiently in smaller ways.

    I’d be very interested in your thoughts regarding my point about economics and economists. Or, if that comment (from my earlier post) is too far from the central question of this thread, can the site leaders or main contributors begin a new, broader thread on that particular issue or on the broader issue of climate change itself?

    Thanks, and cheers.

  6. 6. Posted by Thom Brooks | September 26, 2007 1:02 pm

    Perhaps a further factor is immediacy. With poverty, we can see the suffering today. People will die without help now. Global warming is less immediate. If we emitted no more pollutants, then we might all be perfectly fine. What we’re worried about is a possible future scenario (ever more inevitable) where we will be affected dramatically. Until this future (and its problems) becomes more clear, I suspect the asymmetry will remain.

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