The moral inefficacy of carbon offsetting

Australasian Journal of Philosophy (forthcoming)
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Many real-world agents recognise that they impose harms by choosing to emit carbon, e.g., by flying. Yet many do so anyway, and then attempt to make things right by offsetting those harms. Such offsetters typically believe that, by offsetting, they change the deontic status of their behaviour, making an otherwise impermissible action permissible. Do they succeed in practice? Some philosophers have argued that they do, since their offsets appear to reverse the adverse effects of their emissions. But we show that they do not. In practice, standard carbon offsetting does not reverse the harms of the original action, nor does it even benefit the same group as was harmed. Standard moral theories hence deny that such offsetting succeeds. Indeed, we show that any moral theory that allows offsetting in this setting faces a dilemma between allowing any wrong to be offset, no matter how grievous, and recognising an implausibly sharp discontinuity between offsettable actions and non-offsettable actions. The most plausible response is to accept that carbon offsetting fails to right our climate wrongs.

Author Profiles

Tyler John
Longview Philanthropy
Amanda Askell
New York University
Hayden Wilkinson
Oxford University


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