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Do Carbon Offsets Actually Work?

Airlines are doing it. Movie studios and restaurants are in on it, too. Major corporations like Google and Nike have embraced it in their long-term goals. Even entire countries, like Iceland and Costa Rica, have joined the cause.

Carbon offsets (also known as carbon credits) are a way for businesses and individuals to pay for their part in producing greenhouse gas emissions. But do they really work, or are they just another eco-trendy bandwagon?

What Are Carbon Offsets?

Climate change is a worldwide crisis that impacts everyone. The main culprit is carbon dioxide, which is released when we burn fossil fuels like oil, coal, and gas.

When we drive our cars, we pollute the earth with greenhouse gas. The same goes for flying on an airplane or, really, doing anything else that consumes dirty, non-renewable energy. Every switch we flick on and off contributes in some small way to this immense problem.

What can we do about it? Well, we can do out best to reduce energy consumption in various ways. We can buy energy-efficient appliances and abide by best practices for energy use.

But no matter what we do, it’s impossible to reduce our carbon emissions to zero.

That’s why carbon offsets exist. Carbon offsets are like “credits” you can buy to fund environmental projects that help to reduce future emissions in some way. By doing this, you can essentially offset your own polluting emissions, hence the term ‘carbon offset.’

For example, say you’re taking a plane trip to visit your parents in another state. You could find out how much greenhouse gas the trip will cause and, based on that amount, invest in a solar farm project somewhere in the world. The renewable energy created by those solar panels will, in theory, balance out the environmental cost of your trip.

According to the David Suzuki Foundation, “It’s based on the principle that, since climate change is a global problem, an emission reduction made elsewhere has the same positive effect as one made locally.”

Are Carbon Offsets Effective?

There are certainly benefits to carbon offsets. However, the process is complicated and sometimes controversial. To start, for the investment to effectively offset the donor’s greenhouse gas emissions, it must meet these requirements:

  1. Authentic. In short, the offset has to actually exist. Those who wish to invest in carbon offsets should carefully research the source of the offset, whether it’s trees, wind turbines, or solar panels. This is especially important if the offset is said to exist someplace far away from the seller and/or purchaser.
  2. Enforceable. There has to be a guarantee that the money will be spent where it’s supposed to go. Do not invest in carbon offsets based on vague promises – look for someone with a concrete, realistic plan showing how your investment will offset your emissions.
  3. Permanent. For your investment to be effective, the offset has to continue to exist for the foreseeable future. If you invest in planting trees, for example, your offset goes to waste if the trees are removed just a few years later. Find out the long-term plan for the offset.
  4. Additional. This means the offset has to add something new, or continue to produce something that could not exist without the investment. This can be a difficult metric to measure. For example, investing in a solar farm that already exists could constitute an additional offset if your money is necessary to maintain it. However, if the offset would continue to exist without payment, your investment is ineffective in offsetting your own emissions.

These are areas where issues have arisen with carbon offsets in the past. For example, past year, the English court shut down 19 companies for selling worthless carbon credits.

There are also concerns that carbon offsets could never truly negate the impact of greenhouse gases. As stated by RationalWiki, “the limited amount of environmental remediation available compared to the massive amounts of pollution being put out risks carbon offset inflation by overselling the available amount of remediation, rendering said offsets useless.”

Though this may turn out to be true, carbon offsets can still be beneficial in that they motivate people and businesses to invest in projects such as solar and wind energy farms. This provides renewable energy with an additional source of revenue and helps the industry grow, which helps reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.