Remember the Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Gore global-warming pitch at the Academy Awards? Before they spoke, the screen at the back of the stage flashed not-so-subliminal messages about how to save the planet. My personal favorite was “Ride mass transit.” This to a conclave of Hollywood plutocrats who have not seen the inside of a subway since the moon landing and for whom mass transit means a stretch limo seating no fewer than 10.
Leo and Al then portentously announced that for the first time ever, the Academy Awards ceremony had gone green. What did that mean? Solar panels in the designer gowns? It turns out that the Academy neutralized the evening's "carbon footprint" by buying carbon credits. That means it sent money to a "carbon broker," who promised, after taking his cut, to reduce carbon emissions somewhere on the planet equivalent to what the stars spewed into the atmosphere while flying in on their private planes.
In other words, the rich reduce their carbon output by not one ounce. But drawing on the hundreds of millions of net worth in the Kodak Theatre, they pull out lunch money to buy ecological indulgences. The last time the selling of pardons was prevalent--in a predecessor religion to environmentalism called Christianity--Martin Luther lost his temper and launched the Reformation.
What is wrong with this scam? First, purchasing carbon credits is an incentive to burn even more fossil fuels, since now it is done under the illusion that it's really cost-free to the atmosphere.
Second, it is a way for the rich to export the real costs and sacrifices of pollution control to the poorer segments of humanity in the Third World. (Apparently, Hollywood's plan is to make up for that by adopting every last one of their children.) For example, GreenSeat, a Dutch carbon-trading outfit, buys offsets from a foundation that plants trees in Uganda's Mount Elgon National Park to soak up the carbon emissions of its rich Western patrons. Small problem: expanding the park encroaches on land traditionally used by local farmers. As a result, reports the New York Times, "villagers living along the boundary of the park have been beaten and shot at, and their livestock has been confiscated by armed park rangers." All this so that swimming pools can be heated and Maseratis driven with a clear conscience in the fattest parts of the world.
The other form of carbon trading is to get Third World companies to cut their emissions to offset Western pollution. The reason this doesn't work—and why the carbon racket is a farce—is that you need a cap for cap-and-trade to work. Sulfur dioxide emissions in the U.S. were capped, and the trading system succeeded in reducing acid rain by half. But even the Kyoto treaty doesn't put any cap on greenhouse gases in China and India, where billions of these carbon credits are traded. Sure, you can pretend you're offsetting Western greenhouse pollution by supposedly cleaning up a dirty coal plant in China. But China is adding a new coal plant every week. You could build a particularly dirty "uncapped" power plant, then sell hundreds of millions in carbon credits to reduce it to a normal rate of pollution. The result? The polluter gets very rich. The planet continues to cook. And the Gores of the world can feel virtuous as they burn up the local power grid.
If Gore really wants to save the planet, he can try this: Turn off the lights. Ditch the heated pool. Ride the subway. And spare us the carbon-trading piety.