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Two days ago, the Greenlining Institute – a public benefit organization focused on increasing low-income and minority participation in civic participation and policy-making that results in equitable policies – put a stake in the ground about using local carbon offsetting to help finance projects that directly assist low-income communities. The article (below) authored by Sasha Werblin (their Sustainable Development Fellow) with contributions from Associate Director Orson Aguilar was part of small package of materials left on the chairs prior to their recent convening on bridging what is now being called the green divide “How Can Clean Energy Benefit California’s New Majority?”

Although the topic of local offsets was not broached in the convening, I imagine that it may show up in subsequent discussions. Overall, the convening was thought provoking and certainly successful in bringing a large number of players in the local environmental justice and social equity camps together.

The Greenlining Institute joins several other Bay Area entities interested in the possibilities of local carbon offsetting, including Kyoto USA , the Ecology Center , the City of Berkeley, and the City of San Francisco.

While I agree there are many problems with existing offset programs, I think we (everyone concerned with the future) need to start thinking about what we want rather than what is wrong with current plans. I would like to see us start a conversation that includes public benefit organizations and affected communities to define what would be an acceptable local offset program. I largely agree with the philosophical problems with offsetting, but the pragmatist in me recognizes that we are on an evolutionary path towards sustainability and that we need to find stepping stones. We mustn’t allow perfect to be the enemy of good. The question in my mind is whether local offsetting programs can be a step towards carbon taxes and whether they can be an effective means to help make some positive local CO2 reduction projects ( e.g., solarizing the roofs of schools) economically viable. And just to be clear, I advocate shifting taxes from what we like (i.e., productive income) to the things we don’t (e.g., carbon emissions and other types of pollution, waste, and fossil fuels).

That being said, I appreciate my colleague Kirsten Schwind’s ideas around a personal offset program:

A counterpart I’d be more interested in is a personal carbon offset plan, for example in which a person commits to take responsibility for offsetting the impacts of her plane ride by making changes in her own life, such as taking BART to work for a couple of months instead of driving, or turning down the thermostat. Again, doesn’t sell as well, I realize.

I plan on incorporating this idea into my talks (with attribution of course) as a way to think about balancing our extravagances with sacrifice.  The Ecology Center already has plans to incorporate this concept into their web store for selling Berkeley’s local offsets. After figuring the total amount of offsets needed, shoppers will be able to reduce their required offset purchase by making personal pledges (e.g., to ride a bike to work several times per week rather than driving) that actually go into the virtual shopping basket. is planning to do a public forum on the topic, co-sponsored by some public benefit organizations. The intention would be for public benefit organizations and affected communities who understand the issues to talk about what criteria for local offsets they would deem acceptable.

We are also interested in floating the concept of globalized product offsets ($ based rather than CO2) – offsetting purchases of global products with the revenues steered to local projects that increase the capacity for localization – that is, projects like Bay Localize ‘s Rooftop Resource Project and many others in the Bay Area dealing with local food, energy, etc… My colleagues and I aim to convene a conversation here in the East Bay, ideally with people representing the San Francisco and Berkeley local offset plans. My colleague Laura Garzon is organizing a panel on February 13th at Stanford on local carbon offsetting with two of the members of the Durban Climate Justice group.