Carbon Offsetting, Social Responsiblity, and Accountability

Yesterday I blogged about paying to offset the CO2 emissions from the flight I was on.

Loyal reader Sandra, from Montreal, emailed with a simple question: who paid the $4.80? Was it out of my pocket, or (because I’m a university professor with federal research grants) was it paid for by taxpayers? (Sandra admitted that it’s a piddling amount to worry about, but she’s rightly interested in the principle.)

Great question! The simple answer: I paid it myself. I don’t have any idea whether carbon offsetting is an “allowable” expense, or how I would even go about trying to claim it on my travel claim. But should it be an allowable expense? Should the taxpayers who pay the other expenses related to my research also pay for carbon offsetting? Well, currently, neither the federal government nor the relevant granting agencies nor my university’s Financial Services department has signalled that this would be allowed. Of course, I suppose I could give it a try: I could submit the receipt (under the heading of “miscellaneous expenses, I guess), and who knows, I might just get reimbursed. Should I? That would amount to me deciding — on behalf of the taxpayers of Canada — that carbon offsetting is not just a good cause, but a better cause than anything else that money could have been spent on. It would make me feel better, maybe, about all the travelling (and hence polluting) that I do. But do I have the authority to make that decision?

This immediately got me thinking: what if I were the CEO of a company, and the issue wasn’t taxpayer money, but shareholder money? And what if the bill for my offsetting (let’s say it’s not just for travel, but for whatever industrial processes my company carries out) was not $4.80, but some more significant amount, perhaps in the thousands or millions of dollars. Wouldn’t the question would remain fundamentally the same?

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