In an article, “Do Trees make it OK to drive an SUV?” on the ENN (Environmental News Network) webpages, Michael Hill quotes a report by the Transnational Institute‘s Carbon Trade Watch as saying: “The sale of offset indulgences is a dead-end detour off the path of action required in the face of climate change”. As a theologian, I cannot miss that reference to “indulgences” … and the religious tone of the report subtitle: The Carbon Neutral Myth: Offset Indulgences for your climate Sins.
The report presents us with a set of technical arguments concerning the practice of offsetting one’s carbon dioxide use by planting trees, and it states on its p. 7:
The sale of offset indulgences is a dead-end detour off the path of action required in the face of climate change. There is an urgent need to return to political organising for a wider, societal transition to a low carbon economy, while simultaneously taking direct responsibility for reducing our personal emissions. Offset schemes are shifting the focus of action about climate change onto lifestyles, detracting from the local participation and movement building that is critical to the realization of genuine social change. It is hoped that the rising awareness of the shortcomings of offset credits will contribute to a reformation of the climate change debate.
The 15th century theological discussions on the topic of indulgences already taught us that they lead to an easy mercantilistic attitude: we pay for our sins and, therefore, can forget about the latter. The real answer to sin, however, is a change of life out of the empowering relationship one has with God. This implies, to use the vocabulary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “costly grace” as opposed to “cheap grace”: sin and its consequences are seriously addressed only through a real effort both of God and of ourselves.
The social injustice that results from a mercantilistic indulgence approach to lifestyles that produce unnecessary and unsustainable CO2 emissions, appears best in the fact that offsetting these by investing in tree-planting requires money. The rich people can pay such money, the poor cannot. This mercantilistic indulgence approach may, in the end, only widen the development gap, as the rich are capable to pay for CO2 driven development and the poor are not. It is wrong – at least it seems morally wrong to me – to avoid reducing CO2 output (which effects on all of us), justifying not making fundamental changes to our lifestyles by hiding our responsibilities behing a mercantilistic ideology. What is at stake is that we all have to agree to make fundamental changes of lifestyle: turning the global warming issue into a mere economic hocus-pocus creates social injustice. I would propose the following idea to reflect on: Unnecessary CO2 use should be punishable by law (and our laws will have to change depending on how we develop substitutive energy policies), and necessary CO2 use should, indeed, be offset, but in a ratio that is proportional to wealth and stage of development (the richer you are – even in poor countries – the more you will pay for offsetting your use of CO2).