You’re probably hearing a lot about buying carbon offsets these days, from large tech companies like Google utilizing them in their strategy to become carbon-neutral – to airlines offering them to balance out your flight’s carbon footprint.
And while the concept is simple enough – the act of removing CO2 from the atmosphere in one place to balance out the emissions created in another – there’s some confusion about just how effective they are in the fight against climate change.
Each carbon offset represents the elimination of 1 metric ton (2,205 lbs.) of CO2 that would otherwise contribute to global warming – but it’s also indicative of a dramatic change in global attitudes and a move towards a greener future. Carbon offsets contribute directly to environmental sustainability and have helped to create an entire “green economy” that puts much-needed money into new initiatives and projects that wouldn’t otherwise exist.
But while carbon offsets are a very effective way to reduce CO2 emissions, are they enough to stop – or ideally, reverse – the climate change crisis? Let’s take a closer look and find some answers.
Why Should You Invest in Offsetting Your Carbon Footprint?
Ever since Al Gore appeared on our movie screens in the 2006 documentary “An Inconvenient Truth”, global warming has continued to gain mainstream awareness to the point where many now regard climate change as the most significant challenge of our time.
Since the beginning of the industrial age, and particularly over the last 70 years, human activity has released billions of tons of heat-trapping gasses – such as carbon dioxide and methane – directly into the atmosphere. And without immediate and direct action to reduce these gasses, the atmosphere will continue to warm well beyond pre-industrial levels. This rapid change to the climate is already causing more extreme weather events such as droughts and floods, the rising and warming of the ocean, shrinking polar ice caps, and a long list of other harmful effects.
“We are the first generation to feel the effect of climate change and the last generation who can do something about it.” Barack Obama, Former US President
If you’re concerned about climate change, it’s likely that you’ve already made improvements to your work and lifestyle to reduce your carbon footprint. But inevitably, there are always some remaining CO2 emissions that are impossible to avoid – and that’s where carbon offsets play a critical role in the big-picture.
What Do Carbon Offset Projects Actually Involve?
While most of us are familiar with the concept of carbon offsets, not too many people know exactly what a typical project looks like. Carbon offsets can take many forms, in fact, they can encompass almost any activity that directly removes CO2 from the atmosphere – or prevents it from going there in the first place. Some of the most common carbon offsetting projects include:
- Capturing methane gas from landfills and coal mines
- Converting farm animal waste into clean fuel
- Renewable energy projects such as wind and solar farms
- Reforestation and improved forestry management to capture CO2 from the atmosphere
Each of these initiatives reduce emissions in different ways, but with careful measurement and control, they all deliver the same environmental benefit.
As a more detailed example, let’s look at the Greater Lebanon Refuse Authority Gas-to-Energy Project in Pennsylvania. Landfills typically emit high volumes of invisible methane gas – a warming agent far more potent than CO2 – which leaks into the atmosphere as large amounts of organic materials decompose. The sale of carbon offsets enabled the refuse authority to install a new, highly-efficient gas capture and energy system. The project has prevented tons of methane from entering the atmosphere – and facilitated a partnership with a gas-to-energy company to convert the methane into renewable electricity that would otherwise have come from coal or natural gas.
What Effect Are Carbon Offsets Having on the Climate?
When correctly implemented and verified, carbon offsets eliminate substantial volumes of CO2 and other greenhouse gases like methane that can stay in the atmosphere for thousands of years. And with a growing focus on reducing carbon emissions and keeping global warming below the 2C threshold, the size – and indeed, impact – of the carbon offset market has grown rapidly over the last 15 years.
“We believe that now, more than ever, offsetting has a crucial role to play both for business success and for global greenhouse gas reduction targets. We hope that by hearing about the business benefits of offsetting, others will be inspired to follow their leadership.” Sophy Greenhalgh, International Carbon Reduction Offset Alliance (ICROA)
In 2019, the amount of CO2 eliminated through voluntary carbon offsets hit an all-time high of almost 140 megatons – or 140 million tons. This figure comprises a mixture of individuals purchasing carbon offsets to balance their personal emissions and companies that buy carbon offsets to reduce their corporate activities’ environmental impact. Quite commonly, businesses will invest in carbon emission offsetting in conjunction with other measures such as improving energy efficiency, purchasing renewable energy credits, developing new recycling initiatives, and electrifying their transport systems.
And as well as reducing CO2 levels, every carbon offsets purchase helps to sustain existing environmental projects and fund brand new ones that wouldn’t be possible without financial investment.
What Makes a Carbon Offset Good or Bad?
Although carbon offsets are a powerful action in the fight against climate change – not all of them are created equal. Before making a purchase of your own, you should always research the provider to ensure they are verified by an official 3rd party. For a carbon offset to be effective, it must be:
- Additional – ensuring that the carbon offset is real, permanent, and wouldn’t have occurred under a “business-as-usual” scenario.
- Verified – to guarantee that the offset credits are credible and high-quality.
- Traceable – to create transparency and provide evidence of the offset.
For example, terrapass works with only four specific carbon offset verification standards – the Gold Standard, Verified Carbon Standard, the Climate Action Reserve, and the American Carbon Registry. These standards ensure that every one of our offsets is real, quantifiable, permanent, and never double-counted or double-sold. For extra peace of mind, we also engage a specialist accounting firm to cross-check and verify our annual carbon offset sales – guaranteeing that every dollar invested has delivered the maximum environmental impact.
We understand that your money is valuable and your purchase is important. If you’re interested in finding out more about how we verify our carbon offsets, feel free to view our annual portfolio audits.
Are Offsets Alone Enough To Stop Climate Change?
In recent years, it has become clear that carbon offsets are a very effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, fund and expand new environmental projects, and improve local communities. But in the grand scheme of things, we shouldn’t think of them as a silver bullet to the climate crisis, but rather, as a practical action we should use in conjunction with other effective measures.
“Offsetting is a valid way to reduce global carbon emissions quickly and cost effectively.” Christina Figueres, Former Executive Secretary, UNFCCC
In one sense, carbon offsets are a little bit like physical exercise. If your goal is to lose weight and improve your wellbeing – physical activity alone won’t make you healthy if you have a really poor diet. In the same way, carbon offsets are a tangible way to reduce greenhouse gasses and prevent global warming – but they must work hand-in-hand with measures that stop CO2 from being created in the first place.
Whether you’re an individual looking to make a difference or a business aiming to become carbon neutral, you should place a strong focus on areas such as clean energy, recycling, diet, waste management, modes of transport, and even your digital footprint. All of these areas contribute to CO2 emissions – and you can improve each of them through careful planning and action.
Ultimately, the best way to help the environment is to reduce your existing emissions – and then use carbon offsets to balance out the rest.
Where Can You Buy Verified Carbon Offsets?
You may have seen a number of different companies promoting carbon offsets – and the majority of them are doing terrific work that delivers outstanding results.
If you’re interested in purchasing offsets for yourself or your business, you just need to ensure that they’re credible, effective, and independently verified. After all, carbon offsets are an investment – so it’s worth taking a little time to ensure your money is used in the best way possible.
At terrapass, we proudly support many different projects and initiatives involved in offsetting carbon footprints of individuals and companies – and improving the lives and health of people in our local communities.
If you’re interested in purchasing carbon offsets, we encourage you first to measure your carbon footprint using our online calculator. This will give you a clear understanding of your annual CO2 emissions, which you can then reduce by adopting sustainable living measures and then purchasing offsets to restore the balance.
Over the last 15 years, it’s been incredible to see such a growing focus on climate change and so much activity taking place around the world to reduce CO2 emissions.
And while carbon offsets might not be a magical cure for global warming, they’re a direct action that allows anyone, anywhere, to reduce their carbon footprint – and leave our planet in a better condition than we found it.
Photo by Eugenio Barboza from Pexels