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Carbon Offsets As a Social Marketing Pitch

Posted Aug 24 2008 10:41pm
John Tierney in the New York Times today has a novel solution to climate change : mood rings and glowing lapel pins. This plan actually doesn't sound so crazy after reading the story.

Turns out, subtle "nudges" have significant effects on people's willingness to make short-term sacrifices for long-term benefit (the kinds of sacrifices we've collectively been failing to make for a while now). Here's Tierney's central evidence:
A study in California showed that when the monthly electric bill listed the average consumption in the neighborhood, the people in above-average households significantly decreased their consumption. Meanwhile, the people with the below-average bills reacted by significantly increasing their consumption — not exactly the goal of the project. That reaction was avoided when the bill featured a little drawing along with the numbers: a smiling face on a below-average bill or a frowning face on an above-average bill. After that simple nudge, the heavy users made even bigger cuts in consumption, while the light users remained frugal.
And there you have it: smiley faces. Tierney, his tongue appearing to be only mildly in his cheek, goes on to suggest mood rings, bracelets, or lapel pins as effective calls to action - anything that could be programmed to inform its wearer of the real time contributions he or she is making to climate change.

One line in particular caught my attention toward the end of the story (mostly because, among other jobs here at, I'm responsible for our overall marketing strategy). Given the social pressures evidenced by the aforementioned study, Tierney asks, why we shouldn't "reward devout conservationists by letting them display their virtue?"

That, in effect, is what carbon offsetters are trying to do, particularly nonprofit ones like We could just as well say: "Donate to because global warming is a serious global problem that will impact billions and we need to solve it quickly." But we find that people pay more attention if we tie our mission of fighting global warming to something more personal, like an individual's responsibility to do something about his or her own emissions.

Truly, I think the concept of carbon offsets have little to do with debates over additionality, RECs vs. forestry, papal indulgences, or the like. At its heart, the decision to label what are essentially greenhouse gas reductions as "offsets" is really a marketing pitch: Don't just support renewable energy and reforestation projects because they're good for the planet; support them because you have a personal responsibility to fight global warming as a result of the CO2 emissions caused by you in your daily life.
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