What are carbon offsets?
Carbon offsets are the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions somewhere else in order to help "offset" one's own emissions. Individuals and organizations can buy offsets from a variety of offset providers, who invest that money in renewable energy, energy conservation projects, etc.
Providers sell offsets by the ton of CO2 emissions mitigated, and typically charge US$10-20/ton. The average American emits 20 tons of CO2 per year (about $300 to offset); the average European 10 tons (~$150), and the average Indian 1.2 tons (~$18).
Four reasons to offset yourself:
- Help reduce the net impact of emissions that are difficult or impossible to stop generating
- Support big projects that have more impact than small personal changes, via pooled investments
- Convince reluctant leaders that citizens are willing to associate a cost with caring for their environment
- If you buy enough offsets, you can have a net negative carbon footprint; there's no reason to stop at zero
Two reasons to avoid it:
- Offsets don't give you a license to increase your personal greenhouse gas output, just as donating to an anti-domestic-violence NGO doesn't give you an excuse to engage in domestic violence.
- Buying poor-quality offsets is counterproductive, wasting money and harming real efforts to measure and manage emissions. If you buy offsets, pick a top-quality provider.
How to compare offsets:
- Does it do what it claims?
- Is it funding only projects that wouldn't have been funded otherwise? Are CO2 reductions permanant?
- How can you tell?
- Good offsets should be verifiable by 3rd parties, and tracked end to end. Transparency is critical.
- How much does it cost?
- All else being equal, cheaper offsets give a bigger bang for the buck.