You do your best to live lightly on the planet, but some greenhouse gas emissions are inevitable. When you have already become as energy-efficient as you can, and the energy you use is as sustainable as you can get it, you turn to carbon offsets. The final step in the hierarchy towards achieving net-zero energy, carbon offsets are still among the least understood environmental strategies. This confusing, often overrated approach can be a valuable tool for shrinking your carbon footprint. But only if you learn how to use it properly.
In principle, carbon offsets are simple. Consumers who cannot avoid carbon emissions from a particular activity (for example, a necessary flight) pay money towards an environmental project that will eliminate that amount of carbon emissions elsewhere (for example, planting trees).
In practice, carbon offsets are much more complicated. Different carbon emissions calculators produce dramatically different results. You need to choose between true carbon offsets or renewable energy credits. Some offset programs prioritize the prevention of emissions, while others attempt to actually remove carbon from the atmosphere. The two approaches have different costs and calculation challenges. The specific projects range from tree planting to sustainable energy and even rural development. Pricing is inconsistent, depending not only on the program but also the location and type of project.
Carbon offset programs have been the subject of much controversy. They are not regulated; ineffective and even spurious projects are well documented. Even some of the most respectable organizations’ programs, like the United Nations’ REDD+ program or the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism have failed to deliver on promises. A 2015 paper found that actively cutting pollution would have reduced global emissions by 600 million tons more than purchasing offsets.
There is also the risk known as “moral hazard.” This is where the availability of offsets is used to justify additional emissions. Moral hazard results in your purchase of a plane ticket when you otherwise would have stayed home. In China, some businesses deliberately increased their greenhouse gas emissions in order to be paid to reduce them again.
There are several major certification systems, including American Carbon Registry, Climate Action Reserve, Gold Standard, Plan Vivo, and Verra. But even the certifiers require scrutiny; standards vary widely and some certifiers take up to 20% of your donation in operation costs. Gold Standard (which produces a consumer’s guide) and Verra’s Verified Carbon Standard seem to be the most trusted.