FLY PRIVATE JETS WITH A CLEAR CONSCIENCE by buying “carbon offsets?” Or is it just a modern version of buying indulgences?

So you can still fly to the Caribbean and the conscience-free answer is to grow a shrub. Actually, someone else grows it for you – but it doesn’t matter, your guilt is still expunged. Such is the popularity of carbon offsetting that scores of projects, such as the preparations for the 2012 Olympic Games in London, will be labelled ‘carbon neutral’.

Pop bands have also jumped on the bandwagon, claiming to be carbon-free in terms of their tours. Banks, insurance companies, hedge funders and diplomats are all offsetting like crazy. These schemes sound wonderfully simple. But how do they work? Indeed, do they work?

Apart from planting trees, another way is to fund energysaving initiatives, usually in the Third World. So you fly, for example, to Goa, and in return, a village elsewhere in India is given half-a-dozen low-wattage light bulbs or a hundredth of a new wind turbine.

In theory it all adds up, but there are sceptics who doubt that such schemes work. According to a recent report in Nature magazine, there are myriad problems with such programmes. It said: ‘The first problem is simply calculating the amount of carbon that needs to be offset.’ . . . But the main problem with offsetting is that it is, at best, a sticking plaster. If we are serious about reducing carbon dioxide emissions, then simply paying £30 to a company every time we jet off to the tropics is the equivalent of putting a paper bag over our heads and wishing the problem away.

Count me among the skeptics. This sounds like a way for fatcats to continue to live high while preaching at the rest of us. On the other hand, there’s this: “A growing army of eco-refuseniks is making the ultimate sacrifice in the age of cheap air travel by pledging to give up flying and using slower modes of transport instead.” We’ll see if it catches on. . . and lasts.

UPDATE: Jim Ashmore notes that he was way ahead of me on this: “it appears the carbon neutrality culture is nothing more than guilt riddance via checkbook matched up with an entrepreneurial opportunity.”

ANOTHER UPDATE: More skepticism from Jay Reding:

It’s typical hypocrisy — the very rich can afford to buy “carbon credits” while those of us for whom money is an object cannot afford to do the same. For all the talk about how the left abhors social stratification and pitting the haves and against the have-nots, that is precisely what this sort of thing does. It allows Al Gore to emit tons of pollutants directly into the upper atmosphere while preaching his Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Gaia message to the masses, then buy his way to a clean eco-conscience afterwards. Meanwhile, the rest of us are told that we have to make dramatic sacrifices to “save the planet.”

It starts at the top. No more “eco-tourism” for the rich. No more private jets to the Super Bowl. No more jet-setting across the country for high-priced speaking engagements. Either this is a crisis that will destroy all of mankind if it isn’t fixed now or it’s just another way for the world aristocracy to purge themselves of a false sense of noblesse oblige. If it’s the former, then the private jet-set are spoiled beyond belief for acting in such an ecologically injurious manner — if it isn’t then they’re peddlers of snake oil and fear.