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Carbon Copies: Are All Offset Programs Created Equal?

     by Non-Toxic News

It's with much relief that we note that the climate crisis has been topping the news lately. From the Nobel prize to the latest Congressional energy bill, global warming is at last on everyone's mind along with questions about what each of us can do to stop it. For many, one promising solution seems to be carbon offsets, which compensate for the carbon dioxide people produce by preventing or absorbing emissions elsewhere. But do such programs work and can you trust them?

Carbon offsets are rapidly becoming the next Big Green Thing around the world, and it's easy to see their appeal. For a relatively small price, they promise to "zero out" any emissions of the key global warming gas carbon dioxide (CO2) that we create by keeping an equal amount out of the atmosphere via tree plantings, renewable energy generation, and other projects that trap carbon or don't produce it in the first place. When such a balance is achieved, offset subscribers and their lifestyles become "carbon neutral."

In the simplest terms, a carbon offset plan works like this: Say, for example, that in driving to and from work each day your car emits a ton of CO2 a year. To negate this CO2, you join a carbon offset program which charges you $200 per year to plant an acre of trees which will absorb a ton of CO2 from the air thereby negating the climate impact of your commute's pollution to make your ride carbon neutral.

It's a reasonable idea, but we should state up front that as a company we're not in favor of carbon offsets. It's our view that while these programs certainly have some benefits, they don't address the serious top-to-bottom systemic change that's needed where energy and emissions are concerned. Instead, they simply grant a certain amount of guilt-free permission for their subscribers to continue to produce CO2 at a time when everyone everywhere needs to stop producing this gas when and wherever possible in order to avert a serious climate meltdown.quiet zone

We think that in a rapidly warming world a molecule of CO2 in the atmosphere is a molecule of CO2 in the atmosphere. The fact that it may have been compensated for elsewhere does not impact the contribution to climate change that that original molecule will make. That another molecule has been prevented from being released elsewhere via a carbon offset program only makes the overall situation less worse rather than making it better. And better is what we need. Thus while we very much support the types of programs that carbon offset subscribers contribute to, we don't favor a system that uses these programs as a way to continue business as usual somewhere else.

At best, we think carbon offset programs are a stop-gap solution, a bridge we can use to start ameliorating our impacts immediately while we engineer a new system in which clean technologies and energy efficiencies combine to keep the lights on without environmental damage. We see them as a temporary fix not a permanent solution. Still, carbon offset programs do offer some short term value. They contribute to a lowering of total global CO2 emissions, provide a personal starting point on the road to a zero carbon world, and help finance needed projects that will be part of our new energy future. As long, that is, as we pick the right ones to subscribe to.
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Because not all carbon offset programs are created equal. The market remains unregulated and there are lots of promises being made that aren't always being kept. The result is a mine-field for well-intentioned consumers who may not be creating the positive impacts they're paying for. Earlier this year, an investigation into carbon offsets by the Financial Times found a fledgling industry beset by problems, including:

Widespread instances of people and organizations buying worthless credits that don't yield any reductions in carbon emissions.

  • Industrial companies profiting from doing very little or from gaining carbon credits on the basis of efficiency gains they've already made and from which they have already benefited substantially. Brokers providing services of questionable or no value.
  • A shortage of verification, making it difficult for buyers to assess the true value of carbon credits.
  • Companies and individuals being overcharged for purchase of European Union carbon permits that have plummeted in value because they do not result in emissions cuts.

Clearly this is a market experiencing some growing pains and until regulators step in to institute some rules and create an honest playing field its caveat emptor. If you're considering offsetting your carbon emissions, here are some questions to ask before you buy:

  1. How much carbon dioxide does the project actually prevent? What emissions would occur in the absence of the project or projects your offsetter contributes to? For example, building a solar power plant in a region inhabited by nomadic indigenous peoples who don't use much if any electricity isn't really preventing any carbon emissions because few if any would occur if the plant wasn't built. Look instead for projects that replace existing, planned, or badly needed sources of carbon emissions (like a coal-fired power plant in a region suffering electricity shortages) with low or zero emission sources (like a wind farm).
  2. How are the lower emissions which occur after the project is initiated and/or other carbon savings going to be measured? What tools, standards, and reporting will be used to quantify the savings you're paying for? Look for offsets that are verified by a third party using accepted measurement standards.
  3. Would the offset project(s) have occurred regardless of your contribution? If your offset project answers yes it lacks what's called "Additionality" and does not represent a true offset. Examples of projects that lack additionality might be a program to give solar cookers to people in a region lacking electricity or wood fuels, or a tree planting initiative in a deforested area subject to environmental laws that require replanting. In both cases, your offset isn't creating any additional carbon savings because the projects in question would have happened anyway. Seek only those offsets projects that contribute to initiatives that likely would not have occurred without offset assistance.
  4. Is the offset permanent? Are any of its savings reversible? For example, newly planted trees absorb lots of carbon while growing, but after 50 years these impacts slow considerably. Solar ovens eventually fall into disrepair. Trees planted in fire-prone areas might be susceptible to burning or subject to logging. Seek those offsets that contribute to lasting projects whose levels of carbon prevention or sequestration will remain active and stable for the longest possible time.
  5. Will there be any increase in carbon emissions elsewhere because of the project? This is called "leakage." For example, will supplying the materials for a new wind farm result in new emissions being created where the farm's components are manufactured? Will servicing the farm require the use of petroleum-burning vehicles where none were needed before? Look for projects that create a minimum of new impacts in other places.
  6. Can the offset provider supply evidence that the same offsets are not being sold to multiple buyers? Some providers have been caught selling the same carbon credits to more than one person. This means that the actual amount of carbon you're offsetting will be much less than advertised. Make sure you are buying "unique tonnage" that's not being sold to others as well. The total amount of carbon an organization says it is saving should always equal the total amount of offsets that have been sold.
  7. Will the offsets being sold accrue in the short or long term? If they will accrue in the future, how far in the future will that be and how necessary is it to extend the life of the offset? Much is the way we amortize a large expense by paying or writing it off in installments over the course of an extended period of time, many offset projects use a similar strategy to make their carbon reductions cost-effective. If a project's full cost had to be paid for by the first year of offset revenues, the resulting offset prices would be prohibitively high. Because offset projects usually create a stream of carbon savings or sequestration over many years, when we buy an offset to compensate for carbon we produce today, it may actually be paying for carbon prevention tomorrow. The shorter the time between your purchase and the actual offset itself, the better the deal.

For a complete consumers guide to carbon offsets, including invaluable ratings of the leading plans, visit Clean Air Cool Planet at http://www.cleanair-coolplanet.org/. For additional perspective on why carbon offsets aren't the solution we need, read The Carbon Neutral Myth from Carbon Trade Watch it on the web here.

(Even within the virtual offices of Green Living the subject of carbon offsets is controversial. "They don't solve the problem, they just move it around," says one faction. "But they're a step in the right direction," says the other. This article gives a balanced presentation. It was published originally in the Non-Toxic News, the free monthly eNewsletter of Seventh Generation. Subscribe at SeventhGeneration.com)

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