Blackadder’s Lair

The home of many a cunning plan

Beyond Earth Hour

So last night was “Earth Hour,” an attempt to avoid the utter destruction of the planet by having everyone turn off their lights for an hour. Attempts to quantify the actual impact of this action on energy use range from nil to negative, but then I suspect that this isn’t really the point. The whole affair reminds me of the following bit from Tim Harford’s book The Undercover Economist:

“How did you travel here today?”

“I’m sorry?” I’m puzzled. Here I am, going to a panel discussion organized by an environmental charity, and a very earnest young member of staff is grilling me before I even get past the door of the lecture hall.

“How did you travel here today? We need to know for our carbon offset program.”

“What’s a carbon offset program?”

“We want all our meetings to be carbon-neutral. We ask everyone who attends to let us know how far they came and on what mode of transportation, and then we work out how much carbon dioxide was emitted and plant trees to offset the emissions.”

“I see. In that case, I came here in an anthracite powered steamship from Australia.”

If planting trees is a good way to deal with climate change, why not forget about the meetings and plant as many as possible? (In which case, everybody should say they came by steamship.) If the awareness-raising debate is the important thing, why not forget about the trees and organize extra debates?

In other words, why be “carbon-neutral” when you can be “carbon-optimal,” especially since the meeting was not benzene-neutral, lead-neutral, noise-neutral, or accident neutral? Instead of working out whether to improve the environment directly (by planting trees), or indirectly (by promoting discussion), the charity was spending considerable energy keeping itself precisely “neutral” – and not even precisely neutral on all externalities, nor even a modest range of environmental toxins, but preserving its neutrality on a single, high-profile pollutant: carbon dioxide. And it was doing so in a very public way.

A kind view would be that the charity was setting a “good example,” if acting nonsensically can ever be a good example. An unkind view would be that it was indulging in moral posturing.

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March 29, 2009 - Posted by | Economics, Environmentalism, Global Warming

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