The Skinny on Carbon Offsets

There is more and more talk these days about becoming “carbon neutral”. Websites offer individuals carbon offsets for sale as a way to, theoretically, mitigate all the nasty, carbon-emitting, large-footprint-producing things we do, like, well, just about everything. From driving to work, running a computer all day, microwaving lunch, driving home again and, when you need a break from all that, going on vacation.

So is this just a way to make us feel good about our lifestyle, while making our wallets a little slimmer?

What’s the deal with carbon credits and the idea of becoming carbon neutral anyway?

Basically, buying carbon offsets work on the principal of determining how much carbon the activity you wish to “offset” produces (or, indeed, the activity of merely living) and putting a price on that carbon.

Carbon offsets are generally priced per metric ton of CO2 generated, and can range from $5.50 all the way up to $30 per metric ton. Of course, just paying a fee to someone does nothing to offset any carbon you produce through your activities. So where does that money go?

Organizations invest your money in various projects designed to offset the amount of CO2 produced by the activity you are offsetting. Projects range from simple reforestation and tree planting to energy efficiency and renewable energy. In most cases, the organization you are buying the offset from doesn’t actually do the offsetting, but invests the money in a specific project that does.

How do you know that you aren’t just sending money down a rat hole?

A good question.

There are various organization set up to verify that purchased carbon offsets are actually used to offset CO2 emissions. These organizations include green-e, the Environmental Resources Trust, and the Chicago Climate Exchange, among others. Through independent verification, you can be reasonably assured that the carbon offsets you purchase actually benefit the climate in some way by engaging in activities that offset your CO2 emissions ton for ton.

So that’s it then? Fly to Bermuda, get a tan, fly home, buy some offsets and relax, it’s all going to be okay. Right?

Wrong. And you know better.

For one thing, if all you’re after is a tan, just go outside and take a walk. The best way to neutralize carbon emissions is to not emit them in the first place. Carbon offsets should not be thought of as an absolution of guilt for our carbon emitting ways, allowing us to continue, or even increase, an over-consumptive lifestyle.
On the other hand, carbon offset programs can be a valuable tool for individuals to lesson their carbon footprint. In the face of such an overwhelming problem like global climate change, it’s easy to become paralyzed and despondent. Participating in a carbon offset program is a good way to actually do something that makes a difference, a step toward a workable and realistic solution to the problem.

It should be noted, however, that these programs are not without their critics. Some voice concern, as I alluded to above, that the idea of carbon offsets encourage “high carbon habits” with the thought that all one needs to do is buy an offset to neutralize it. Others have reservations about essentially putting environmental policy into the open market. Many express concern for reforestation projects in particular. Of course, there is nothing wrong with planting a tree, and forests do soak up carbon. The problem is that the actual amount of carbon is hard to measure, and most of the carbon sequestered in forests eventually gets released in the course of the forest’s natural lifetime.

All things considered a carbon offset program that is independently verified is a good way to help ease the burden, if even just a little bit, of global climate change. I believe it is up to individuals to act and through their actions, move both the marketplace and governments into taking seriously the environmental challenges we all face in the 21st century.

For a list of some popular carbon offset organizaions, see the list of links on the blog home page, or click here

So offset me!

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