Rich ‘Eco-Sinners’ Can’t Buy Absolution Through Carbon Offsetting
Celebrities should rein in the moralising zeal or their hypocrisy risks alienating ordinary people
Sir Elton John has defended the Duke and Duchess of Sussex against accusations of hypocrisy after it emerged that the eco-conscious Royal couple had used private jets to fly to the south of France and Ibiza in two trips just days apart. He and partner David Furnish, Sir Elton said, had ensured that the Harry and Meghan’s “flight [to Nice] was carbon neutral by making the appropriate contribution” to a charity which specialises in helping people offset their emissions. There was, he insisted, no case to answer.
After all, plenty of other people are doing the same. When asked to justify her decision to fly 5,400 miles from Los Angeles to attend a Extinction Rebellion protest in London, the actress Emma Thompson replied: “I plant a lot of trees”. And you can see the reasoning. No need to modify your behaviour by giving up the trappings of an international, jet-setting lifestyle when, for a fee, you can absolve yourselves of your sins against Gaia.
Yet this modern form of absolution – the carbon offset model – is facing heightened scrutiny amid concerns it may actually be harming the environment. UN experts have warned against buying credits “in exchange for a clean conscience”, arguing that trees planted today simply cannot grow quickly enough to cancel out contemporary habits. Such an approach also runs contrary to the prevailing view that we are facing a “climate emergency” which requires immediate action – like Extinction Rebellion’s drastic calls for carbon neutrality by 2025 – since carbon offsetting innately defers it. Like organic farming, whose lower crop yields would mean bringing swathes of rainforest into agricultural use, the wealthy are advocating practices that would be unsustainable if universal.
And what of the behavioural effects? Allowing passengers to assume the problem has gone away for a small fee surely encourages them to travel even more, much like the famous carpool experiment in Freakonomics. When a school started fining parents who picked up their children late, it caused a counter-intuitive surge in lateness. Given the option to pay a small fine and assuage their guilt, researchers concluded, people will take it en masse. One website Cheatneutral brilliantly parodies this aspect of carbon offsetting by likening it to infidelity: “By paying [us], you’re funding monogamy-boosting offset projects – we simply invest the money you give us in monogamous, faithful or just plain single people, to encourage them to stay that way.”
Some have even compared the schemes to the sale of papal indulgences – ecclesiastical pardons of sin that served as neat revenue-raisers for the Catholic church. Comparable, too, to the chantries established by medieval potentates who committed funds to pay for a priest to say prayers or sing masses in a private chapel in the hopes of commending their and their family members’ souls to heaven. In our purity-obsessed era, it’s no surprise to see charlatans, like Chaucer’s Pardoner, flogging fake holy relics. One agreement – ironically between the Vatican and a company supported by the Hungarian government – pledged to plant thousands of trees in an effort to make the Vatican the world’s first carbon neutral state. None were ever planted.
Whether it’s “eating clean” (when did the woke decide to abolish adverbs?), fetishising organic food, or fixating inanely on ‘toxic masculinity’, our increasingly irreligious society is finding new kinds of purity to police. This is never more evident than when two or three celebs are gathered together, busily trying to outdo each other in their efforts to be “greener than thou” and through their demands that everyone else wears a hair shirt – while dodging accusations of hypocrisy when found to be engaging in the conspicuous consumption that is the modern celebrity’s prerogative.
Eco-warriors should rein in their moralising zeal, or risk alienating ordinary people from the climate debate through sheer hypocrisy. Papal indulgences sparked Martin Luther’s famous theses and hastened the Protestant Reformation. Fury over fuel price increases and the apparent rift between the city “elite” and rural poor triggered the gilets jaunes protests. In our haste to cleanse ourselves of eco-sins, we too should beware the dangers of setting up one rule for the rich, another for everyone else.
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