Ever wonder what papal indulgences and carbon offsets have in common? Not sure what a papal indulgence is, exactly? Read on, and The (British) Times’ Camilla Cavendish will explain it all — in wonderfully snarky (British) tone.

Did Mrs. Offset know how her money was being spent to compensate for the carbon dioxide generated by her flights? Was she planting trees to absorb the CO2, or helping to reduce someone else’s emissions? She didn’t know. The act of writing the cheque was enough to absolve her guilt. Carbon offsetting is easily portrayed as the 21st-century equivalent of the papal indulgences sold in the 16th century by the Catholic church. Then, you could wash away whatever sins you had committed by handing over a commensurate amount of lolly. Now you can chuck £10 at lastminute.com to offset your trip to N.Y., or give £5.85 to Carbon Clear to offset two and a half years of disposable nappies. I bet indulgences didn’t come that cheap. But the risk is the same: that by paying up we will feel free to keep on sinning.

Don’t worry, carbon offsetters, Cavendish isn’t slamming the practice altogether:

This is not to say that offsetting is pointless. On the contrary, it provides an enormously important way to help individuals to measure their environmental impact. It also offers a powerful tool to employees who want to make their companies more responsible. Once offsets appear as a cost on the balance sheet, it is harder for the finance director to ignore climate change.

And finally:

Offsetting is something that individuals feel they can do while they wait and wait for government to take a lead.

Waiting for the government to pressure polluters to clean up their act? Cavendish may be across the pond, but despite our cultural differences, we think we know how she feels.

Story by RJ Gambale. This article originally appeared in Plenty in January 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

Wash away your green sins
The papal indulgences of the 21st century.