Carbon offsetting is the funding of projects designed to compensate for the greenhouse gases that we emit with our activities. The concept has been a widely debated topic for years. It sounds great in theory; being able to live your life without having to worry about damaging the planet with your actions, as long as you pay for your offsets. Unfortunately, there are no get out of jail free cards here. Cutting your carbon footprint and preventing these emissions in the first place is always the preferable option.
This is exactly what opponents of the concept argue; that it is a distraction from the real issue. And this is not the only solid point critics make. Another issue is the lack of transparency of many of these programmes. How will you know if the project you support will successfully neutralise the effect of your emissions, and how can you be so sure this would not have happened without your donation? It only counts as a carbon offset if it is additional. Especially in the early days of carbon offsetting, many of the projects were inefficient at best. They usually focussed on tree planting, which made them vulnerable to logging and natural calamities such as pests. At worst, these programmes were linked to several scandals, from the eviction of local populations in favor of trees to the planting of the ‘wrong’ species of trees that destroyed their native counterparts.
But however flawed carbon offsetting might be, it is not all bad. Most importantly, it is better than doing nothing. It is unrealistic to hope for people to stop driving or flying altogether, and as long as it is not your only attempt to curb your emissions and you don’t see it as a license to pollute, it can be an effective tool to further reduce your environmental impact.
So how to pick the best project? Since not all carbon offsetting programmes are created equal, it is important to do your research before committing to a donation. Tree planting projects are often not recommended for the reasons mentioned earlier in this article. In addition to the traditional tree planting programmes, there are also projects that focus on the preservation of forests instead. They are called REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation). However, the impacts of REDD projects on indigenous populations are still unclear and there is some level of controversy around these programmes. The question of how will be ensured that the protected trees won’t be logged in the future also remains. This doesn’t mean that there are no effective tree planting or deforestation programs out there, but funding a project focused on renewable energy is generally a safer option. These projects will ensure a reduction in emissions indefinitely as it aids a rapid expansion of renewables in favor of fossil fuels.
To help you identify a good quality carbon offset programme, standard bodies have been established with their own requirements and criteria. Out of all these standards, Gold Standard is the strictest and the one to look out for. This group requires projects to cut carbon emissions while benefitting the local population and is supported by a large number of NGO’s. In addition, the NRDC (National Resources Defence Council) offers on its website the following advice on how to choose wisely:
- Ensure that the offsets are real, verified and enforceable
- The offset needs to be permanent
- The offset must be additional. This is often difficult to verify, and a related issue is that of leakage; what if one plot of land is saved from a landowner who simply buys the land next door? Your money will have made no difference.
- A good programme is transparent.
Carbon Offset Programmes
If, after reading this, you’d like to do more to reduce your carbon footprint, take a look at the following programmes:
A Swiss non-profit that offers a transparent programme; a list of their achievements is available on their website. Their portfolio is diverse and with about 80 different projects myclimate is active in 30 different countries.
A German non-profit focussed on offsetting air travel. It only takes you a few clicks to compensate for your flight (or cruise for that matter), and they also offer the option to offset a specific amount of CO2. Their projects are mainly focused on renewables and energy efficiency.
This UK-based certified B Corporation focuses on projects that reduce CO2 emissions while improving the lives of local populations. Their portfolio includes the distribution of clean cooking stoves and delivering safe water to communities in Kenya.
The best thing you can do for the planet is to create no damage in the first place. Measure your footprint with one of the online footprint calculators, and reduce your emissions yourself as much as possible. Carbon offsets can be helpful to compensate for the carbon footprint that is left at the end of this.