Carbon neutral shipping, sort of

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UPS has announced a carbon-neutral shipping option, and I suppose it's a good thing, but I thought it would be worthwhile to check in briefly on why that is. (Before proceeding, I want to be clear that this isn't about UPS any more than tangentially.)

First off, they're still using as much carbon as they used to, so the "savings" are secondary, if not illusory. The way most activity becomes carbon neutral is essentially to raise the price on it, by adding the cost of a credit certificate to the original price. 

Make something more expensive, and people are more likely to consider whether they need it, so the increase could conceivably/eventually reduce the need to planes and trucks and fuel. That would be actual savings, but since the certificates are optional, customers on the price fence might just opt not to buy them.

In the meantime, certificates that are purchased fund carbon mitigation measures such as tree planting, which, under ideal conditions, does take carbon out of the air. But to have their intended effect, the trees have to trees that wouldn't otherwise have been planted, and have to stay in the ground through their peak sequestering years.

Presumably, a company that offers a carbon-offset certificate — and isn't doing it merely as greenwashing — has wrung all the flab out of its carbon stream, though of course, it's hard to know if UPS is one of those companies.

Otherwise, the success of offsets depends on consumer guilt/social conscience. It's interesting to consider that through the prism of natural selection. It would seem that, in the short term, those unwilling to support this sort of carbon neutrality will have an economic advantage over those who do, but in the long term, they will be the cohort least likely to react as the crisis widens.

Seems a pretty good illustration for why an unfettered market doesn't necessarily equate to broad public good.


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