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First Class to Nairobi and 2 tons of carbon credits, please

Monday, March 26, 2007

The London papers are nailing the British diplomat whose job it is to lobby other countries to reduce global warming gases – but whose frequent-flier lifestyle produces a staggering 22.3 tons of carbon pollution a year, 30 times more than the average Brit's. John Ashton has racked up more than 80,000 air miles in 10 months on the job, flying to Washington, Nairobi, Tokyo and beyond "to engage with major developed and developing countries to drive forward the international response to climate change." The government said the trips were necessary and that all emissions were offset "as part of the department's commitment to become carbon neutral."

The jet-set world of the international envoy, tycoon and celebrity has been invaded by an inconvenient truth: Air travel produces vast amounts of global warming gases – up to 5 percent of all CO2, and three times as damaging as ground-level emissions. So what's an eco-conscious member of the Beautiful People to do?

Last month Hollywood not only gave Al Gore an Oscar, but proudly presented the first "carbon-neutral" Academy Awards. Business Week reports that "each performer and presenter received a glass statue representing the elimination of the amount of greenhouse gas associated with a celebrity lifestyle over the course of a year." The Motion Picture Academy purchased the carbon offsets from Terra Pass, a Silicon Valley startup that buys industrial emissions credits and then resells them to offset the greenhouse pollution of traveling (including daily commuting).

Sounds great, but it's checkbook environmentalism, no different than the indulgences popes once sold for permission to commit certain sins. You keep right on emitting the same amount of carbon; you just pay for the "right" to do so. You're a rock star or captain of industry, so you can afford it. But as always, you can't consume your way to sustainability: Business Week found that some Terra Pass credits come from polluting facilities that would have been required by law to clean up anyway. Let's not even mention the whole loathsome idea of emissions credits trading, which creates pollution markets and "rights" to pollute.

Here's a better idea: If you feel guilty about the global warming gases your lifestyle produces, change your lifestyle. Executives and government officials can make better use of video conferencing. Travelers should try to use trains and buses when possible. As for rock stars . . . Is another farewell tour of the Eagles worth all that hot air?

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