Retailing Kyoto-Style Carbon Offsets
Looking for a holiday gift that is bound to be unforgettable? Maybe you should try individualized “carbon offsets,” purchasing pieces of “green projects” (such as forest reclamation in Ecuador or wind farms in Oregon) in an amount that corresponds to your own carbon emissions. While corporations have been purchasing carbon-offsets for years, social entrepreneurs (e.g., Carbonfund, Climate Care, Climate Trust, and TerraPass), as well as corporations, are now marketing carbon-offsets to individual consumers (especially those susceptible to eco-guilt). According to a story yesterday on NPR, the average household produces 18 tons of greenhouse gas per year, and greenhouse gas emissions can be offset for $10 per ton; groups like Climate Care cleverly market gift certificates designed to neutralize all or part of such emissions (such as the “I’m Dreaming of a Green Christmas” certificates for approximately $30 which offset 2 tons of carbon dioxide, “more than enough to offset carbon from warm radiators, log fires, Christmas dinners and general festive fun”). Likewise, Ford Motor Company has joined with TerraPass to market carbon-offsets to SUV purchasers for $80 per year.
As I noted in a previous post, despite the administration’s decision not to join Kyoto, various transnational actors, including private actors, congeal to strive for Kyoto-like ends. These carbon-offset initiatives draw individual consumers into this community, not just indirectly (i.e., exerting market power via consumer-driven boycotts of polluting companies) but directly, by sensitizing consumers to their role in creating greenhouse gas emissions and by allowing such individuals to utilize Kyoto-like offsetting mechanisms to pay for and balance their emissions. For those who think about the role that private actors play in the making and implementing of international law, initiatives such as these carbon-offset programs suggest that their role may become increasingly robust and complex.
Obviously, it would require billions in retail-level carbon offsets to make a significant dent in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and I am certainly not advocating retail-style carbon-offsets as the means to reduce carbon-monoxide emissions in any significant way. At most, they offer baby steps. Yet, these carbon-offset initiatives, especially when juxtaposed with today’s Supreme Court arguments in Massachusetts v. EPA, punctuate that international norms (in this case Kyoto-like rules) not only flow from official treaty, regulation, or court decision but also percolate from the bottom-up, in this instance from the combustive interplay of private consumption decisions, creative social entrepreneurship, and NGO-driven education efforts. This type of “bottom-up lawmaking” is not linear, unidirectional, nor predictable; yet it is an irrepressible phenomenon that peppers the international lawmaking landscape.