introduction to carbon offsets

This week I’m flying to DC for the Peoples’ Climate March. I’m super excited, but one little detail of my trip has me puzzled… Flying massively increases my carbon footprint. How do I justify flying halfway across the United States in order to protest about climate change?

After poking around I was relieved to find that others have had this dilemma, and one suggested solution is to purchase carbon offsets. Then I could wipe my hands of the trip guilt, so to speak, right? Well, not so fast…

First, what are carbon offsets?

Via The Guardian:

Carbon offset schemes allow individuals and companies to invest in environmental projects around the world in order to balance out their own carbon footprints. This might involve rolling out clean energy technologies or purchasing and ripping up carbon credits from an emissions trading scheme. Other schemes work by soaking up CO2 directly from the air through the planting of trees.

So if each of us pays a little money that will make climate change go away? Not exactly. As it turns out there is quite a bit of debate around offsetting.

Why are offsets controversial?

Offsets have been sparking controversy for many reasons. First, as the New York Times reports, they’re like paying the church for your sins. Critics worry that it’s just too convenient… offsets curb our guilt and replace or delay the real action that is needed to fight climate change.

It’s like the ancient Catholic church’s practice of selling indulgences: absolution from sins and reduced time in purgatory in return for financial donations to the church.

A similar if more humorous point is made by the spoof website, which parodies carbon neutrality by offering a similar service for infidelity. “When you cheat on your partner you add to the heartbreak, pain and jealousy in the atmosphere,” the website explains. “CheatNeutral offsets your cheating by funding someone else to be faithful and not cheat. This neutralises the pain and unhappy emotion and leaves you with a clear conscience.”

Next, there’s the efficacy of the projects that are being funded. It’s rather difficult to make sure the money is being put to good use actually creating carbon reductions, and critics have defined two major roadblocks. First, you need to prove that if it weren’t for your dollar, the offsetting project wouldn’t have happened anyway. This is called additionality. Second, similar to additionality is another phenomenon called leakage:

Let’s say your money prevented the Amazonian landowner from selling his plot to a logging company. That’s great, but what if the logging company simply bought the plot next door? That’s leakage. Your offset dollars shifted deforestation rather than preventing it. [via NRDC]

Thankfully, the last several years have seemed to bring great progress on these obstacles, mainly in the form of standards. Also, offset providers are providing guarantees, which apparently means that losses from non-additionality and leakage are recovered by investment in other projects.

Right then, so should we buy them?

Whether or not to buy offsets comes down to your personal approach.

If you offset to assuage guilt and to make yourself feel better about high-carbon activities such as flying, that can’t be good. If you offset as part of cutting your footprint, or as an incentive to be greener (after all, the less you emit, the less it will cost you to go carbon neutral) then that can’t be bad – especially if the offset projects offer extra benefits such as poverty reduction in the developing world.

In other words, they shouldn’t be used to ease your guilt, but as part of a comprehensive plan to reduce emissions. We should reduce flying and overall energy consumption as much as possible, and then offset the rest.

Actually, this is the approach that many of the most environmentally conscious companies—like Google—are taking, and I think it makes sense to copy this on a personal level. It requires looking at your footprint holistically and determining where your available time and money can produce the best environmental return on investment. Maybe it’s offsets, maybe it’s energy efficiency, maybe it’s renewable energy, maybe it’s rearranging your travel schedule so you can take the train instead of flying.

As for the drawbacks and obstacles listed above, I look at them as incentives to invest in more offsetting, not less. Others share this view:

On the other hand, some carbon-neutrality advocates suggest offsetting carbon-intensive activities such as flights two or three or even ten times over. This, they argue, allows individuals not just to stop their total carbon footprint from going up, but actually to make it fall.

Buying options

There are many different places to buy offsets and it’s overwhelming to start looking at them. Fortunately, as mentioned above, a quality assurance system has developed to set standards and verify the quality of your offsets.

At the top level are standard-setting groups, such as the Climate Action Reserve, which establish rules and protocols for offset projects. Below them are retail certification programs, like Green-e Climate, which help individuals identify reliable carbon offset sellers.  [via NRDC]

I checked out Green-e’s list of North American offsetting options and landed on Terrapass. They have a handy calculator that let’s you calculate your carbon footprint and then buy that amount of offsets, whether it’s one flight or an entire year’s worth of emissions.

Moving forward, I think it makes sense to invest in a diverse portfolio of different offsetting companies and projects and I’ll be reading up on future options. For now, I chose to offset all of my 2017 emissions, including my vehicle, home, and flight energy use, which totaled $65. [Notably missing from their calculator is food-related emissions, so that’s something else to research a bit further.]

As for my round-trip flight to DC, it was offset for just a few dollars. As for my guilt? Not so much…