What is Carbon Offsetting, Anyway?

And can it actually make a difference?

 
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There are times in even the most dedicated environmental activist’s life when a significant increase in carbon footprint is necessary. Beyond the environmental costs of everyday living, you may need to take a trip on a plane, rent a moving truck, or even get a divorce. All of these things increase your carbon footprint significantly, but they can be difficult to work around.

At some point in your life, you will likely need to engage in some heavy carbon-producing activities, no matter how careful you are. It can’t be avoided, so what can we do?

It’s at times like these that the eco-conscious turn to carbon offsets.

But what are they, exactly? When you buy one, what actually happens in the world to negate the carbon you used?

Read on to discover the ins and outs of carbon offsetting- what it means, what gets done, and how well it all works.

First, What They Aren’t

To discover what carbon offsets actually are, it’s useful to start by outlining what they are not, and dispel a few myths.

Some people look at carbon offsetting as something akin to indulgences and absolution. You’ve committed your carbon sin, and now you have to atone for it by paying for a carbon offset of an equivalent amount. They see it as primarily a way to make yourself feel better about your carbon footprint, rather than a step that actually makes a difference.

But carbon offsetting can make a difference, in a couple of key ways.

 
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Ok, So What Is It?

Basically, what happens when you buy a carbon offset from a reputable company is this: your money is pooled with others who buy carbon offsets from that same company and put toward various projects that reduce the world’s overall carbon footprint.

These projects could be things like setting up new renewable energy systems, planting trees, funding methane capture projects, or any number of other things. The company you choose to buy your offsets from should be able to tell you exactly what it’s funding with that money.

The great part about this is that the way it works inherently lets you help fund projects that make a much greater difference than any individual can achieve alone.

On top of that, all good carbon offsetting companies practice additionality, meaning that the projects they fund are things that would not be built or run if it wasn’t for the money you spent on offsets. That ensures that your money has the maximum possible impact.

A corollary to additionality is the concept of leakage. For example, if an offset involves paying a landowner to maintain the forests on his land, additionality is achieved by ensuring that he actually intended to cut down the trees. But there’s still the possibility for leakage if the logging company that was going to clear the offset plot of land just clears the neighboring lot instead.

All of these concepts boil down to one simple idea: the carbon offset process must actually make a difference in the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.

How Is All This Quantified?

As you might imagine, it’s quite a complex calculation to determine how much greenhouse gas any given project offsets. For example, for wind energy projects, the exact amount of carbon dioxide emissions avoided depends on the specific fossil fuels that are being burned in any given region to make electricity. This takes into account both the type of fossil fuel (whether gas or coal) and the amount that’s used. These factors make up the region’s so-called carbon profile, the exact emissions of which are routinely updated by the EPA.

Even something as seemingly straight-forward as planting a tree can involve a bit of number crunching. It seems like we should have by now determined an acceptable average impact of a tree, some sort of easy to reference number that represents how much carbon that tree is likely to divert over its lifetime.

Of course, it’s not that easy! The impact of a single tree is highly variable based on things like species, lifespan, and other factors, but the impact of an entire forest is even more unpredictable. Did you know that things like soil, understory forest vegetation, and even leaves, debris, and other forest floor litter can all store carbon as well? The way that forests are managed determines how many of these secondary factors will be present, and therefore affects the impact a single tree will have.

 
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The Other Side of Carbon Offsets

We often think of carbon offsets as something you buy as an individual when you want to offset the impact of your own carbon footprint, but there is another way they can be used.

For businesses who want to institute more environmentally-friendly practices, carbon offsets can offer a way to fund the (often expensive) initial startup and maintenance costs.

For example, a local farmer may want to install a methane-capturing anaerobic digester that can drastically reduce the methane emissions of his or her farm. However, they may not have the capital on hand to be able to fund this project right away.

Obviously, the sooner the farmer can install the anaerobic digester, the better. The benefits of this system are numerous. They not only capture methane and prevent it from being released into the atmosphere, but they also can use that captured methane to generate electricity! Isn’t that amazing?

That’s not even all- the byproducts of this process can be used as bedding for animals and fertilizer for crops, AND, these systems help to reduce water pollution and odor from the farm.

So, the farmer, the community, and the planet would all benefit from this system being installed asap, but the farmer can’t afford it right now. This would be a great time for the farmer to get in touch with a carbon offset company and see about getting the project funded. It’s a win-win-win!

Of course, these projects may be taking place in your backyard, or they may be on the other side of the globe. Luckily, it doesn’t make too much difference since we’re all part of the same earth!

This “crowdfunding” concept is one of the most powerful tools we have in encouraging businesses to step up their sustainability, so the more businesses that take advantage of it, the better the outcomes for the planet.

Of course, companies may also be the ones buying carbon offsets in order to bring down their total carbon footprint, as many international airlines will soon be required to do. That’s something that many DoneGood approved brands do voluntarily, including TAMGA Designs, Mighty Good Undies, and Grounds for Change.

So, Does It Make A Difference?

Yes! As long as you approach them with the right mindset.

When all else fails, carbon offsetting is a great way to bring your personal carbon contribution down to zero, or even below. Buying carbon offsets can help you fund worthwhile projects all over the world while remaining carbon-neutral or carbon-negative if you so choose. You can buy them to counteract the effects of a one-off carbon heavy activity, or to balance out the carbon footprint of your daily life.

But it also gets people thinking about their carbon footprint. While some people think that having carbon offsets available is tantamount to giving people permission to “go wild” when it comes to carbon-producing activities, for many people it actually has the opposite effect.

Seeing exactly what it would take (and what it would cost) to effectively reverse the impact of whatever activity you’re considering doing can make you more intentional about the carbon-producing activities you do ultimately decide to undertake.

It can make you more mindful of your carbon footprint and encourage you to reduce it any way you can. Carbon offsets aren’t there to give you the option of paying someone else to reduce their emissions so you don’t have to, they’re there to lessen the impact of the unavoidable emissions you produce over the course of an otherwise eco-conscious life.

So, as long as you can use them responsibly, and not take them as an implicit invitation to burn as much fossil fuel as you want, carbon offsets are a great tool that can do a lot of good for our planet.


 
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Kayla Robbins
DoneGood Contributor

A freelance writer working with bighearted businesses who want to better our world.

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Kayla Robbins