Above: Solar project in Malika, Daka Wikimedia Commons

Today, people conscious about the environment are looking for ways to reduce their environmental impact or decrease their “carbon footprint.” Your carbon footprint is a measure of how much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) you are responsible for as a result of your activities, such as eating, travelling, using electricity, etc. Through personal actions such as walking instead of driving, people can reduce their carbon footprints. However, it is impossible to get rid of a carbon footprint entirely. For the part of our carbon footprint we can’t get rid of, people have created what are known as “carbon offsets."

 

Did You Know?
If you were to build a cube to represent one metric ton of CO2, it would measure approximately 8 metres on each side.

Carbon offsets are a type of credit. They are sold by companies and other organizations which use the money to support projects that reduce, avoid or remove GHGs. The credits are then purchased by other companies as well as individuals as a way to compensate for or “offset” their own GHG emissions. The purpose of the credits is to help people and organizations balance their emissions and become what is known as ‘carbon neutral.’ For example, people who wanted to offset their CO2 emissions from driving their cars could purchase an equivalent amount of CO2 in carbon offsets from a project such as a tree farm.

 

Did You Know?
Carbon offsets are sold in metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) (for more about carbon dioxide equivalents, see the Vehicle Emissions Primer).

Types of Carbon Offset Projects

Many different types of projects are funded by carbon offset companies. Renewable energy projects, such as wind, solar, and geothermal, often offer carbon offsets, as these methods of generating heat or electricity are considered to produce significantly less GHG than their fossil fuel-based counterparts. The goal of projects such as energy projects is to reduce overall GHG emissions by providing an alternative, less GHG-intensive way of doing something. Some projects help to avoid having GHGs go into the atmosphere in the first place. Landfill gas recovery projects and biogas plants capture gases such as methane that are naturally released into the atmosphere from the breakdown of waste. These gases can then be combusted to generate electricity. Other projects help to remove GHG from the atmosphere, such as projects which involve planting trees and other plants in order to restore or preserve forests, grasslands, etc. Plants are considered to be ‘carbon sinks’ as they take CO2 out of the atmosphere and use it for photosynthesis (how plants make their own food). Tree-planting projects are sold on the basis of the reductions the trees are expected to generate over the course of their lives.

Pros and Cons of Carbon Offsetting

Just like with everything else in life, there are pros and cons to carbon offsets. Carbon offsets help fund projects that offer cleaner ways to do things such as generate electricity, run businesses, deal with waste, etc. which can improve the planet’s ability to deal with CO2. However, some types of new technologies may not be successful. Carbon offsets can help smaller projects get funding that they might not get otherwise, which enables them to provide jobs and improve the local environment, especially in Third World countries. However, not all of the money used to purchase a carbon offset goes to the projects - carbon offset companies are businesses that exist to make money. Although some projects can remove CO2 from the atmosphere (such as a tree planting project), they may not make a difference for years to come and may not be conducted in an environmentally responsible way (e.g., introducing invasive species, reducing biodiversity, displacing indigenous people in poor countries, etc.). Finally, although the sale of carbon offsets can raise awareness to the issue of GHG emissions, carbon offsets can also allow people who don’t want to change their lifestyles a way to “spend their way out” of taking real responsibility for their emissions.

 

Did You Know?
Canadian icons Barenaked Ladies offset the carbon emissions from their concert tours through a program with REVERB, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing sustainability to concert tours. Find out more here.

If you are thinking about purchasing carbon offsets, you need to do your homework before laying out your cash. Look for companies that meet certain standards, such as the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) or the Gold Standard, which are standards set for validating, measuring, and monitoring carbon offset projects. You should find out about what projects the company is supporting and how much of your money will go directly into the projects they fund. Finally, you should look for projects that would not occur without the funding (not just doing business as usual).

Carbon offsets should be a line of last resort, not a first (or only) resort. If you really care about reducing GHGs, then you should change your behaviour.

References

Purchasing Carbon Offsets: A Guide for Canadian Consumers, Businesses and Organizations (The David Suzuki Foundation and the Pembina Institute) What is a carbon offset? (David Suzuki Foundation) How Carbon Offsets Work (Sarah Dowdey, How Stuff Works) A complete guide to carbon offsetting (Duncan Clark, the Guardian) Carbon offsets 101 (Anja Kollmuss, Worldwatch.org) Carbon offsetting (Chris Woodford, Explain That Stuff!) 10 things you should know about tree ‘offsets’ (New Internationalist Magazine) Carbon offsets program slammed by B.C. Auditor General (CBC News) How Coldplay's green hopes died in the arid soil of India (Amrit Dhillon in Gudibanda and Toby Harnden, The Telegraph)

Kim Taylor

Kim Taylor is an Education Specialist at Let’s Talk Science. A true ‘nature-girl’, she is happiest outdoors, whether it be in a beautiful provincial park or her community vegetable garden. She is interested in science and technology of all kinds and enjoys sharing cool stuff about the world with people of all ages.

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