Are Carbon Offsets Effective?
One of the most polarizing topics in the climate industry is the topic of Carbon Offsets and their effectiveness. In this post we aim to define exactly what carbon offsets are, take a crack at defining the benefits and drawbacks of purchasing offsets, and coming to a conclusion about how effective carbon offsets are in mitigating the climate problem.
What Are Carbon Offsets?
If you have spent any time on this website, you'll have seen the words "Carbon Neutral" and "Carbon Negative" floating around. What do those words mean? Glad you asked.
To be carbon neutral, you need to emit net zero carbon into the atmosphere. Because everything we do on a daily basis contributes carbon to the atmosphere in a large or small way at some point or another, the only real way to do this is to remove carbon from the atmosphere to offset the carbon you put in.
As you can probably imagine, in order to be carbon negative you need to emit sub zero carbon into the atmosphere or in other words: take more carbon out of the atmosphere than you are putting in.
So how is this done?
Well if you were paying attention to the title of the article and not just scrolling to this point like some kind of animal, you've probably realized this is done by using carbon offsets. Whatever those are.
According to Miriam Webster Dictionary, carbon offsets are defined as:
An action or activity (such as the planting of trees or carbon sequestration) that compensates for the emission of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.
So essentially, carbon offsets are a way of directly (doing it yourself) or indirectly (paying someone else to do it) removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to offset your CO2 emissions. Many people and corporations choose to do this by funding projects that aim to pull CO2 from the atmosphere in the form of renewable energy, planting trees, or other methods. There are two main markets that deal with the purchase of carbon offsets: Cap and Trade markets, and Voluntary markets.
Cap and Trade
Governments that have put in place a cap and trade system for dealing with greenhouse gas emissions force companies to use another form of carbon offsets. Basically, the government puts a cap on the amount of emissions you are allowed to emit into the atmosphere to force companies to be more efficient and come up with new and inventive ways to lower their carbon footprint. Companies that do not hit the goal can purchase available emission credits from companies that have optimized their business practices and have room to spare. This results in a revenue stream for efficient companies and a tangible liability for those companies that can't get their emissions down.
People who are environmentally conscious and want a way to offset the unavoidable emissions that come from day to day life have an option to purchase carbon offsets on a voluntary market. These offsets boil down to donations to projects that are designed to remove a dependency on carbon somewhere in the world, or projects that remove carbon from the atmosphere through methods such as direct air capture, sea capture, or bio-energy with carbon capture and storage. We will have a blog post on the effectiveness of all of those in the coming months.
Carbon Offset Project Checklist
Before throwing money toward any old project claiming to be pulling carbon from the atmosphere, do your research and make sure the following points are met:
1. It should be verified by a reputable third party such as Gold Standard or others.
2. The project should not exist if not for the donations through carbon offsets. i.e. the project should not already be circumventing emissions elsewhere.
3. The project should be trackable, i.e. you should always know how far along the project is and the amount of emissions being circumvented after completion.
What Carbon Offsets Are Not.
I wanted to quickly go over one of the things carbon offsets are not. CO2 offsetting is not a way to make you feel less guilty about doing emission heavy things like flying a plane, taking a cruise, or owning a big truck. They are for offsetting the inevitable carbon footprint we all accumulate. Companies and individuals should use offsets as a tool along with other methods to reducing their carbon footprint. Companies can strive to be more efficient and to use more ethically sourced materials in their products and individuals can do all the things you were taught about in school: turn out the lights, bike or walk to places you can bike or walk to , etc, etc. This is one of the major misconceptions that feeds the argument around around the effectiveness of carbon offsets so make sure you use them properly!
The Benefits of Carbon Offsets
In the section above, we talked a bit about what carbon offsets are. From that discussion, some points can be inferred as to the benefits of carbon offsets and some of the drawbacks both of which I'll discuss in the following sections. To get started, we'll list some of the benefits of carbon offsets in no particular order.
1. They Hold Companies Accountable
Using a cap and trade system or even just having consumer pressure moving companies to become more green is a good thing. By having measurable units of CO2 offsets, consumers can actively see if companies are putting their money where their mouths are.
2. Used properly, they DO reduce our population's emissions.
This is probably the most important point on the list. If used properly by following the checklist in the previous section, carbon offsets are an effective way to offset the carbon emissions of companies or individuals. By using a cap and trade system, companies are forced to become more efficient or risk shelling out money to raise their allowable emissions ceiling. On the voluntary market, consumers are able to fund projects that would not have existed if it were not for their contributions. A wind turbine here and a solar panel there make a massive difference if scaled up and if more people purchase carbon offsets, the scale can increase dramatically.
3. They help raise awareness
Looking at the types of carbon offset projects available on the market, it is now easier to see exactly how much work goes into removing a ton of CO2 from the atmosphere. Instead of educating children by telling them to turn off lights and bike to work, we can show them exactly how much work goes into removing the carbon spent by driving to the mall. As offsets become more prevalent, more and more companies and individuals will be using them to offset their emissions thus increasing the amount of people who will hear about this and decide to do some research on why the offsets are needed.
Drawbacks of Carbon Offsets
PSA: We at Offset Gear are in favour of carbon offsets and believe that the drawbacks are due to a lack of education or their misuse. Granted, there are many issues with the process but the idea as a whole is sound if implemented properly. In this section we will address the main concerns about carbon offsets and see how we can fix them.
1. Not all projects are created equally.
Remember the checklist above? Well that exists because for every one of those points, there are projects that don't meet the criteria. Some don't even meet any of the checks! Projects will advertise carbon offsets when they either don't plan on offsetting carbon at all or they're already offsetting carbon for a company and just want to rake in a few extra dollars. Be on the lookout and make sure that the projects you are purchasing offsets from are reputable and verifies by an organization such as Gold Standard.
2. Replacing carbon emitted now with carbon taken out in the future is not effective.
One of the main misconceptions about offsetting carbon emissions is that planting trees is an effective way to offset current emissions. While planting trees is necessary for future generations to live in a cleaner, more breathable world, a single tree can take years to develop into a state where it can offset the amount of carbon it was planted to offset. Making sure that the projects we are supporting are going to have an effect in the near future is paramount to reducing our global carbon footprint. We're at a tipping point as a species and putting off the carbon removal too far into the future could mean we pass a point of no return before seeing the dividends of the initial projects.
3. People use them as an excuse.
As mentioned in the beginning section, one of the main issues with the perception of carbon offsets is the thought that people can do whatever they want and just throw money at the problem. Carbon offsets provide a way to offset emissions while you work towards becoming more and more carbon neutral. The perception that you should not continually strive for neutrality on your own is part of the reason we're in this mess as a population in the first place. Use carbon offsets for what they're meant to be used for, a tool to help industries and individuals achieve net zero emissions, not a catch-all solution for climate change.
The Bottom Line
In this post we went over what carbon offsets are, what they are not, what the benefits are, and what some of the drawbacks and misconceptions surrounding carbon offsets are today. All in all after reading the article written by a pro carbon offset company, you probably got all the information you need if you were already a supporter. We hope we were about to convince some of you who were on the fence about offsets that they're a great solution to offsetting some of your emissions when they're used properly and the right amount of research is done before a purchase. To those of you who are still hesitant, we encourage you to keep doing research and make sure you have all the information before making a decision. In fact, we encourage everyone reading this to go out and do more research on the topic. Carbon offsets are by no means a perfect system, but as the concept continues to evolve and grow it could become a major player in incentivizing climate change to bring more big business to the table which could turn the tide on more action being done to save the planet.