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Carbon Offsets & God

So at the weekend we had the Live Earth musicfest, calling us all to save the world by being more energy efficient. Perhaps like me the event more or less passed you by – although it did strike me as odd that we should be called to conserve resources by putting on events that required thousands of people to travel to them, performers to trek across the world with all their kit, and countless thousands/millions to turn on their tv sets – all consuming more energy.

But there was a solution to all of that – ticket prices were being used to purchase carbon offsets. This was a reasonably new phrase to me until a couple of months ago. A carbon offset is when you are unable or unwilling to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions caused by your lifestyle, you then pay for the reduction of gases elsewhere – you can pay for trees to be planted, or wind-farms to be set up.

So if you’re unwilling to change you can pay for someone else to change. Or if someone else is being to environmentally friendly you can buy some ‘friendliness’ off them, apparently.

Of course it doesn’t really make much sense – it seems like just another tactic to get money – albeit for a good cause. Certainly, it is good that people can at least offset some of the damage they do by sponsoring environmental causes elsewhere. At the end of the day you are still guilty of ruining the environment. The fact that you pay for it not to be ruined by someone else somewhere else doesn’t really excuse you.

The reason it appeals to people is that it doesn’t require any real change on their part. Yet the idea that lies behind carbon offsets is one that is very common in people’s thinking. It’s the idea that although I have done something wrong I can undo it by doing some good, or by asking someone else to credit some of their goodness to my account.

Environmentalist George Monbiot draws the comparison with the system of buying and selling indulgences in the Middle Ages. People believed they could purchase forgiveness for their sins instead of actually repenting and not sinning anymore. They also believed that various saints had done too much good, and that God would shift some into your account, to offset your sin.

As Monbiot says about carbon offsets, “carbon offsets are an excuse for business as usual with regards to pollution”. It’s the same with the idea that we can borrow someone else’s good to make up for our own error, or that we can sin and then offset it with a few good deeds.

The problem lies in the fact that God demands perfection, so it’s not possible to ‘over-perform’ in some areas of life (eg. church attendance, prayer, charity work) to make up for underperforming in other areas. The principle of offsetting only works if the resources exist to completely neutralise the effects of the offence. And we just don’t have what it takes. Only Jesus does.

He lived the perfect life, and amazingly God offers to offset his life against ours. We have no other viable option – church attendance, prayers, etc. simply don’t offset at all. Only Jesus does. He’s the ultimate offset.