Solving the Mystery of Carbon Offsets

How to Choose and Use Them Wisely



From screwing in squiggly light bulbs to wrapping the hot water tank in a thermal blanket and connecting a timer, many people are taking more steps these days to use less energy more efficiently. In other words, we’re working to cut our carbon footprint.

When it comes to shrinking our personal impact beyond the practicalities that we think we can control, a growing number of us are learning to consistently purchase carbon offsets. Another name for these is greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions. Whether we indulge in an occasional energy splurge, such as flying the family to the Caribbean, or have concerns about the energy load at the office, using carbon offsets can help. They’re specifically created to help neutralize the rapid rate of global warming generated by energy-intensive activities.

Voluntary carbon offsets essentially work by enabling energy users to invest in projects, such as solar arrays and wind-driven power plants, which prevent greenhouse gas emissions that would otherwise enter the atmosphere if traditional fuels were burned. Offset providers will calculate emissions from a plane flight, for example, and determine an affordable fee that will buy enough GHG reductions to offset the fossil fuel use. It’s an easy way to make any flight carbon-neutral.

Other carbon-offset projects might include industrial energy-efficiency upgrades and capturing methane from livestock manure or landfills to convert into power, as well as producing clean energy from solar, wind and geothermal sources.

It’s vital to note that purchasing carbon offsets is not a substitute for implementing personal emission-reducing practices. Offsets are best used to reduce the effects of unavoidable emissions. Doing our part in a worldwide effort to live a more energy-conscious lifestyle is essential if we have any hope of bringing down the levels of global GHGs currently warming our planet. Carbon offsets are a small but important part of the solution. 

Yet, “As good as carbon offsets can be, we can’t offset our way out of global warming,” explains Bill Burtis, Clean Air-Cool Planet’s manager of communications and special projects. “There simply aren’t enough of them, and there won’t ever be enough of them.”

Carbon offsets are a new, still unregulated industry. So experience levels and credibility of the companies and nonprofits in the business of selling carbon offsets vary. The following guidelines are helpful in shopping for a reputable provider we can trust.

BUYING TIPS

Choose Green-e Climate-certified offsets. Green-e Climate is the only organization that tracks the purchase all the way through. The Center for Resource Solutions’ Jeff Swenerton explains that “Green-e tracks offsets all the way [back] to the consumer, so that you’ll know where your GHG reductions are sourced from and that they are not being double-counted, but sold only to you before being retired.” 

Select companies whose source projects are certified and verified by an independent third party. Whereas Green-e certifies offsets, other organizations certify projects to verify the amount of environmental benefit they provide. Examples include The Voluntary Carbon Standard, The Gold Standard, California Climate Action Registry and Chicago Climate Exchange.

Look for transparency. A provider’s website should provide sufficient project details and an explanation of how money is spent.

Check industry report cards. Clean Air-Cool Planet’s Consumer’s Guide to Carbon Offsets evaluates 30 providers. It’s intended to identify providers that perform best against the report’s stated methodology.

Support current projects. Some providers sell offsets based on unverified future GHG reductions (e.g. for a facility still under construction). Swenerton believes that the best way to build demand for clean energy projects is to support existing projects currently delivering measurable GHG reductions.  

Watch out for organic source projects. Reforestation and soil enrichment are beneficial, but Burtis cautions, “From a strict technological point of view, it’s difficult to verify the amount of carbon that is stored within forests and soil and for how long.” 

Don’t get spooked by wildly different prices. Offsets are never applied to just one project; they represent a portfolio of projects. Some projects are expensive, while others are less costly. Various factors, such as a project’s location and relative environmental benefits, affect pricing. The field offers no standard price for a ton of GHG reductions.

Contacts:
• U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at www.EPA.gov
• Green-e at www.Green-e.org
• Voluntary Carbon Standard at www.V-C-S.org
• The Gold Standard at  www.CDMGoldStandard.org
• California Climate Action Registry at www.ClimateRegistry.org
• Chicago Climate Exchange at www.ChicagoClimateX.com
• Consumer’s Guide to Carbon Offsets at www.fao.org/fileadmin/user_upload/rome2007/docs/Consumers Guide to Retail Carbon Offsets Providers.pdf.


Crissy Trask is the author of It’s Easy Being Green: A Handbook for Earth-Friendly Living and a freelance writer and green lifestyle consultant based in Washington State. She can be reached at CT@GreenMatters.com.

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