These days carbon offsetting is all the rage. But what are carbon offsets? Purchasing carbon offsets offers companies and organizations the opportunity to finance carbon removal or reduction projects to counteract their own emissions.
The logic goes that once a company accounts for its carbon emissions, it can become carbon neutral simply by financing an equal amount of carbon removal or reduction elsewhere. The money paid for carbon offsets typically funds sustainable projects—tree-planting or the protection of carbon stored in a forest that would otherwise be destroyed are just two examples.
Carbon offsetting use cases
In recent years, climate change has entered mainstream public discourse. In response to soaring public pressure, governments and businesses have rallied to prove their commitment to drastically reducing or eliminating emissions. General Motors and Ford are poignant examples of the corporate attitude shift. To stay relevant in an eco-conscious world, both automakers scrapped previous climate change denials and traded their fossil fuel lobbying efforts for commitments to carbon neutrality. But to get there, they’ll both likely need to explore carbon offsets.
For other companies in industries with hard-to-abate emissions behaviors— fossil fuels, shipping, steel, cement, trucking, and airlines—offsets are a lifeline because these industries are more challenging to electrify than other sectors.
Air travel is responsible for 3.5% of global warming, and 80% of the carbon footprint from air travel comes from large and long-haul flights. While electric planes are on the horizon for regional air travel, emissions from commercial flights won’t change anytime soon due to the limitations of existing battery storage technology.
For businesses hoping for a quick-fix for their carbon footprint, offsetting is an efficient, ad hoc, and affordable way to tick the sustainability box and move on. This outlook creates problems, though—if offsets are the only solution to curb your carbon footprint, rather than just part of a broader strategy, climate change impact will remain business as usual.
Environmentalist and critic George Monbiot equates offsets to sinners paying to absolve their guilt. Offsetting should be a last resort for residual emissions, only used once you reduce your carbon footprint as much as possible through internal mitigation.
Buyer beware: many carbon credits fail to live up to their promise. The global carbon market has plenty of problems: inflated carbon removal claims, double-counting, outdated and uncertain measurement, and a lack of accountability or regulation. An infamous ProPublica investigation on global forest preservation carbon credits found inaccuracies in measurements, drastically inflated carbon removal claims, and the gut-wrenching practice of trees cut or burned before their realized carbon removal benefit.
Ultimately it’s the environment that loses from insufficient offsets. Polluters get a free pass, offset providers get rich, and little changes. In the interim, it’s up to the offset buyer to learn how to differentiate between good and bad carbon set credits.
What makes a good carbon offset?
The amount of carbon reduction or removal sold must come from direct activity of the offset project.
Offsets need to be measurable, monitored over time, and validated by an independent third-party or a UN or government body.
Carbon has to stay sequestered from the atmosphere, which is especially important for nature-based offsets. For example, trees should stand for decades to qualify because they sequester carbon as they grow.
A project is additional if the greenhouse gas reduction would not have happened if not for the offset purchase. A 2016 European Union report found that 85% of offsets are not additional, which is often true for renewable-energy offsets. They fail the additionality test because the wind farm or solar array would be built regardless of the carbon finance.
Carbon credits need to be tracked, usually through a registry, to prevent double counting. You want to ensure that the credit you buy represents carbon that belongs to you and you alone.
How to find high-quality carbon offsets
Looking beyond the carbon can help you align your choice of offset with your organization’s broader mission, interests, and environmental impact. Two offsetting projects that sequester the same amount of carbon can have completely different co-benefits. One may provide social benefits, like financing the replacement of coal cookstoves with ones powered by renewable energy in India or Asia; another could offer something completely different like increased biodiversity, reforestation, ecosystem restoration, or wildlife protection.
Offsetting standard bodies are a great place to look for registered carbon offset projects. The following “Big Five” are the most rigorous and reliable voluntary carbon offset standards on the carbon offset market:
- Climate Action Reserve (CAR) – The premier offset standard for the North American carbon market.
- Verra’s Voluntary Carbon Standard (VCS) – Verra is a non-profit organization that operates the Verra registry and several standards.
- American Carbon Registry (ACR) – A non-profit and the first voluntary greenhouse gas registry.
- Gold Standard (GS) – General certification standard created by the WWF.
- Plan Vivo – Standard for projects that support communities and smallholders in the developing world.
If you’re considering a carbon offsetting program or looking into the practice, it’s important to practice diligence in selecting a provider and only to use offsets when appropriate. Despite issues with the voluntary carbon market, proper emission reduction is part of the climate change solution and can make a difference—just remember to do your homework.