Integrity in the Carbon Offset Market is the Goal and Why It’s a “Sticky Wicket”

Carbon offset - A Sticky WicketI admit it leaves me a bit uneasy when I hear people that pursue a carbon-rich lifestyle (that’s you and me) proclaim their erstwhile carbon-spewing ways neutralized through the simple and convenient purchase of a few carbon credits.

Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that the concept of carbon offsetting is a useful one, though only as a first step or “mitigator” of our carbon emissions and certainly not a “total solution” to global warming.

It is all too easy to abuse the concept and compromise its very legitimacy.

For the idea to really mean something there needs to be an actual offsetting of carbon emissions from one source by an activity or process initiated by that originating emission. The ton of carbon burned to power my office is effectively offset by an equal amount of energy generated from a wind farm (for instance) that would otherwise have been generated by burning a ton of carbon. Note that this does not reduce any carbon already in the atmosphere, and the ton of carbon from my office’s energy use is added to the total carbon in the air, but then offset by initiating the generation of power somewhere else by a means that would have otherwise produced a ton of carbon. Get it?

That’s one way to make what at first seemed pretty simple sound a lot more complex. And therein lay what I like to call the concept of the sticky wicket.

The sticky wicket is something ostensibly simple put when you start pulling on it a bit it doesn’t reveal its true nature as easily as we’d first suspect. It has been defined as simply a difficult situation, but of course the concept itself is, well, a sticky wicket.

I digress.

In any case, while the idealized concept of carbon offsetting is good, and implemented correctly is a vital tool in initiating the process of mitigating our overall carbon emissions, to adhere to the idea requires not only a regulated standard but also a proper mindset.

For the consumer it should be used to offset any form of carbon emission possible, including fueling an extravagant lifestyle (by typical western standards, for extravagance is relative), but it should not be thought of as an excuse or justification of one. Carbon offsets do little on its own in accomplishing the hard work of adopting, if one cares to, a less consumptive and carbon-soaked lifestyle. It’s working around the edges of the problem, not driving toward the core.

And the well-intentioned consumer must have an objective standard by which to judge legitimate carbon offset activity from what is otherwise little more than a piece of paper with the words “carbon offset” stamped on it.

I’ve said it before and I guess I’m saying it again, we can’t “offset” our way to a solution for climate change. But it we’re going to leave a carbon trail anyway, we need to start somewhere, and utilizing verifiable carbon offset programs is a start.

Carbon Markets, Standards, and Certifications 

Voluntary Carbon Standard
A global carbon standard recently started on the London Stock Exchange

Chicago Climate Exchange survey of carbon offset programs

A Consumer’s Guide to Retail Carbon Offset Providers (pdf)

The Skinny on Carbon Offsets



Tags: carbon+offset, , , global+warming, climate+change
Thomas Schueneman
Thomas Schueneman
Tom is the founder and managing editor of and the PlanetWatch Group. His work appears in Triple Pundit, Slate, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, Earth911, and several other sustainability-focused publications. Tom is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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