The Low-Down on Carbon Offset Programs

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Alright, folks, it’s time to be frank: the present state of Mother Earth isn’t looking good. The planet needs us more than ever before. We have a pretty serious situation on our hands as a result of climate change, and now I’ve found myself asking — as I’m sure many of you have, too — what do I do now? How can I help?

You may have heard of something called “carbon offsetting.” This term has begun to appear more and more in climate change conversation, and is shrouded in controversy as well. Is it legitimate? Let’s take a look.

What is carbon offsetting?

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The World Economic Forum provides a graphic (source: graphs.net produced by GOOD and Deeplocal using data from NRDC, US EPA, Clean Air Cool Planet, and The Discovery Channel) that does a great job of breaking it down: The concept of a carbon offset is that it negates – or offsets – the same amount of carbon emissions you release into the atmosphere. The offset is created either by supporting a renewable energy source such as wind and solar, or by funding activities like planting a tree.” 

In a nutshell, “offsets” allow individuals to spend their money in ways which compensate for the negative effects their carbon footprints are having on the planet.

How does it work?

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The concept of quantifying and monetizing climate change might seem crazy, but here’s how it works: a company which works in carbon offsetting creates projects around the world in a number of different categories, from planting trees to building wind-power infrastructure to installing energy-efficient cooking stoves in communities that need them. The only issue is that these companies need funding to complete such projects. Therefore, these companies want you — the individual — to fund their projects with your own money. They created the system of carbon offsets in order to offer consumers the ability to make up for the damage they are having on the planet with their lifestyle choices, while simultaneously acting as financial backers in global environmental efforts.

For example, if you’re taking a round-trip flight from Los Angeles to Bali, the carbon emitted by the airplane there and back is roughly equivalent to 16,991 pounds of carbon dioxide. Since there really isn’t another efficient way to travel between L.A. and Bali — let alone a cleaner, greener way — you might choose to offset the negative environmental impact of your trip by purchasing an equivalent amount of carbon offsets (16,991 pounds’ worth) with a carbon offset company. The money that you spend on carbon offsets — in this case, about $197 — will help fund climate change-fighting projects in order to remove that same amount of carbon from the air in the future. (This example was calculated using the flight emissions calculator from Atmosfair.)

Why is it important?

Carbon offsetting encourages environmental awareness, and that alone is powerful. If the carbon offsetting system gets people thinking about the choices they’re making and the effects those choices have on the planet, the Earth is already one step closer to where it needs to be. Furthermore, thought becomes action! By purchasing carbon offsets, you (at least in theory) are helping the planet in a significant way. You’re given the chance to use your money to do something beneficial for the environment and to donate to something you might not otherwise.

Perhaps most importantly, the carbon offset discussion is reaching a crucial demographic of people: those in countries like the United States who have the financial stability required to enjoy a consumerist lifestyle. These are the individuals whose habits and choices, whether we like to think about it or not, are heavily contributing to environmental issues. Carbon offsets are geared largely at this group of people, as these are the ones most likely to seek out an environmental solution which would allow them to hold onto the parts of their lifestyle that they love. These individuals are able to partner with carbon offset companies in order to at least “break even” with their carbon footprint, which is still a step above not doing anything at all.

What are some potential issues with carbon offsetting?

While they appear promising, carbon offsets must be looked at critically. Perhaps the most important concept in the discussion of carbon offsetting is that of “additionality,” which examines the degree to which carbon offsets are both worthwhile and effective. Additionality — which has been called “the Achilles heel” of offset projects — means that the reduction in carbon emissions “purchased” would not have been brought about any other way, thus rendering your money and the project itself truly effective in the fight against climate change. This ensures that companies are planning projects which are scientifically proven to produce an additional decrease in  greenhouse gases with quantifiable results.

Another potential issue with carbon offsets is their “temporary fix” nature, or the idea that “markets can solve problems that markets created,” as Our Changing Climate explains it. The act of theoretically purchasing an environmental pardon significantly reduces guilt; therefore, some argue, carbon offsets act as an excuse for people to refrain from reevaluating their lifestyles and making more responsible choices. For instance, if you’re looking to offset a flight, it might be a better choice to take a train or find an alternative method of transport, rather than just proceed with the flight and the according carbon offset. The most important thing here is to use carbon offsetting as a last resort when you cannot find any other way to make your plans more environmentally friendly. Doing something is still better than doing nothing; however, we need to make sure that the actions we are taking are as beneficial as possible and are not just empty efforts to say that we did.

Furthermore, it can be difficult to know exactly where your money is going when purchasing carbon offsets. The degree of financial transparency varies from company to company, but the sentiment exists that once you type in your credit card information and hit “submit,” you are out of the loop. Of course, there are those companies which care about keeping their patrons informed through every step of the process, and companies like that are the best ones to partner with if you choose to purchase carbon offsets.

How do I know if a carbon offset program is legitimate?

In order to make sure that a certain carbon offset program is legitimate, you’ll want to look into those same topics I just mentioned. First, check to see what a company’s website says about additionality. Does the company address it at all? If so, does it focus merely on financial additionality (the proper use of your money), or does it also place an emphasis on environmental additionality (worthwhile and effective climate change work)?

Then, try to figure out how transparent the company is with your money. Some websites, like Offset Earth, are so up-front that they even share their public finance documents on their sites. Another company, Cool Effect, also emphasizes financial transparency on its website. A third point to check for is the legitimacy of a company’s projects and results — how are their projects verified? Cool Effect, for example, works with two separate scientific committees to verify that their results are effective and additional.

The Best Resources

Two of the best and most legitimate carbon offset services seem to be Gold Standard and Cool Effect. Both companies check the boxes for additionally, financial transparency, and well-verified projects, so if carbon offsetting is something you’re finding yourself interested in, these are two great companies to partner with.

Meanwhile, Atmosfair is a fantastic resource on the topic. The site offers tons of clear, informative material, like tips for climate-friendly travel and graphics on the global climate budget. Their flight emissions calculator alone is immensely helpful, especially because of a cool feature which shows you the difference in emissions based on which airline you could choose to fly with!

Similarly, NativeEnergy offers several carbon calculators: one for travel, one for household, and one for events. These tools can be highly informative and allow you to examine not only your flight-related emissions, but also the impact of your day-to-day life.

Here's what travellers need to know about carbon offsetting to be a greener traveler in 2020. Learn how you can carbon offset, how to pick the right company and get all of the best resources! #CarbonOffset
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Want to do more in the fight against climate change? Watch either of these two TED Talks for some great ideas on where to begin minimizing your carbon footprint: Three Steps to Cut Your Carbon Footprint 60% Today // How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint by 80%.

While flying still equates to a significant carbon footprint, and changes to the way airlines operate are one of the most important step towards climate change initiatives (check out the greenest airlines here), picking carbon offset programs that are legitimate can at least help curb the impact.

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