Are Carbon Offsets All They’re Cracked Up to Be?

When the movie stars left last this year’s Academy Award ceremony they didn’t leave with the normal $100k-plus gift bag, instead they left with a 100,000 pound carbon offset certificate. This certificate may be enough to almost offset the amount of flying that many of these celebrities do in a year and make our earth green again. But what is a carbon offset? And, do carbon offsets really help the reduce global warming, or are they just a way that we can feel less guilty about polluting?

Carbon Offsets, (or Carbon Credits), are purchased from any of a variety of providers around the world. The theory behind them is that the money paid for an offset goes to a project somewhere that reduces the amount of carbon, (or equivalents), released into the atmosphere by the amount of the offset. Carbon offsets are usually sold by the metric tonne, so, supposedly, if I buy a carbon offset for 2 tonnes my money goes to fund project that will either remove 2 tonnes of carbon from our atmosphere or prevent somebody else from emitting 2 tonnes of carbon. An couple of examples are a tree planting project to remove carbon from the atmosphere or a wind farm to prevent other folks from spewing carbon all over the place.

This all sounds really great but here’s the thing, there’s no regulation in the carbon credit market. There are some guidelines that can be followed, but they’re all voluntary. If I really wanted to I could probably put up a website and sell carbon credits and use the profits to buy plants for my garden. Hey, I’m planting plants, so I must be taking carbon from the atmosphere. It’ll be even better if I plant a tree! Because of the lack of regulation in the carbon credit market people wishing to buy carbon credits should really research different companies before making their purchases.

What should you look for in a carbon credit? Look at the projects that will be supported by your credit and see if they’ll stick around for a while. Tree-planting projects may not stick around for that long, there are too many risk factors for forests, (fire, logging, and disease among others). Look to see if the project would even happen without your money. If a wind farm is going to be built whether or not you contribute then your money isn’t going to help the environment much, is it? It’ll probably go to increase the profitability of the wind farm and make someone, (not you), rich. In that case the money is better off in your pocket. Also look for projects that have easily measurable benefits. It’s quite difficult to put a dollar value on the amount of carbon a bunch of trees will take from the air, but it’s much easier to put a value on a wind farm that will produce a relatively fixed amount of power, (thereby reducing the power required from a dirtier source). One easy way to find out if your carbon offset vendor is selling quality credits or not is to ask if they sell Gold Standard credits. The Gold Standard is a Swiss nonprofit organization that certifies carbon offsets are of the highest quality. As with anything you are buying, though, expect to pay for quality. Gold Standard carbon offsets can be as much as 4.5 times as expensive as non-regulated offsets, perhaps more.

So, assuming that we’ve found a great offset vendor, can we solve global warming with carbon offsets? Well, the short answer is no. The best carbon offsets go towards things like alternative energy projects which reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, but the two tons of carbon that came out of your tailpipe are still in the air. The real way to solve global warming is to not put the carbon in the air in the first place.

That said, let’s have some fun with numbers and see if we could perhaps offset a nation. Since I live here and we have a terrible record on global warming, I’ll use Canada. Also, I’m going to use Canadian dollars in my math, which is worth about the same as a US dollar at the moment. According to the David Suzuki Foundation, in 2003 Canada released the equivalent of 740 Megatonnes of carbon dioxide into the air. Let’s try to offset that! Ok, buying Gold Standard offsets from Planetair, (the only provider of Gold Standard offsets that I can find in Canada – they’re tough to find), at $39 per tonne, that’ll be $28.86 billion, a LOT of money. On the other end of the scale, (that I found, at least), is Terrapass, the company that provided the offsets for the Academy Awards. Their offsets are only $8.41 per tonne, so for Canada in 2003 that would have worked out to $6.22 billion, still a lot of money but much more affordable. I think I would have to get a new calculator to run those numbers for the US.

So do carbon offsets really help? I think so, but you have to buy the right ones. If you pay more any get the Gold Standard, (or something close), your money will be funding things like renewable energy projects that would never have happened otherwise. Over time these renewable energy projects will supply a significant portion of the energy we use and reduce our dependance on dirty energy. However, if you buy offsets that are unregulated and don’t have lasting benefits you’re not doing much more than paying for an easy conscience.

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Note: While late in the day, this article is posted as part of Blog Action Day

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