Some of our family members are traveling by air and car during the holidays which got me thinking about carbon offsets so I decided to research the topic.
AAA projects 93.3 million Americans will journey 50 miles or more from home during the year-end holidays (5.6 million by air, 84.4 million by car, 3.3 million by other means). Fossil fuel powered travel by air, car, bus, or train is not green. However, purchasing carbon offsets may give a green tinge to holiday travel.
What is a Carbon Offset?
A carbon offset is a reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide or greenhouse gases made in order to compensate for or to offset an emission made elsewhere. Carbon offsets are measured in metric tons (2,205 lbs) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions.
If a company develops a project that reduces carbon dioxide emissions, every metric ton of emissions reduced results in the creation of one carbon offset. Project developers can then sell these offsets to help finance and operate their projects.
Carbon offset buyers decide how many metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions they wish to offset and receive a certificate.
Carbon offsets seem simple in concept but are complex to manage and track. The intent is that one purchases an offset certificate that is used to fund a specific project and then retired so that no one else can purchase that particular offset. To me, purchasing carbon offsets seems a little like buying virtual goods in an online game. One pays money for something of value but does not get a physical item in return.
Purchasing Carbon Offsets for Individuals
There are two types of carbon offsets. One is for businesses and governments trying to comply with regulatory caps on the amount of carbon dioxide they are allowed to emit. The other is for individuals or businesses wishing to offset their air travel, car commuting, and energy use. In this post we are dealing with individuals.
Carbon offsets are sold by for profit companies and nonprofit organizations. In the travel industry, some airlines, car rental companies, and travel service companies offer carbon offsets as an add-on at time of purchase.
Purchasers may utilize online calculators to determine their carbon footprint or carbon emissions for a single event, like a round trip airplane flight. Some sites provide “packages” where one may purchase an offset to cover ones carbon emissions for a year. Calculators vary widely so check out what standards are used and what items are included. As an example for air travel, calculators may include all the pollutants generated per flight, while others factor in departure dates (it’s more fuel efficient to fly in July than in January), airline carrier and seat class (economy, business, first class.)
The types of projects funded by carbon offset purchases include:
- Generating renewable energy via wind, solar, hydroelectric, and geothermal power.
- Methane capture from dairy farms, landfills, and abandoned coal mines.
- Creating carbon sinks through reforestation or avoiding deforestation.
Several certification standards have been created via collaboration among businesses, governments, regulators, environmental non-governmental organizations, and project developers. These include: American Carbon Registry, Green-e Climate, Chicago Climate Exchange, Clean Development Mechanism, Climate Action Reserve, Climate, Community & Biodiversity Standards, and Gold Standard.
Criteria for projects generally includes:
- The greenhouse gas or carbon reduction must be measurable, quantifiable, and verifiable.
- It should represent reductions above and beyond business as usual. The reductions would not have occurred in absence of the project.
- Reduction should be permanent for the useful life of the project.
- The project should not cause higher emissions outside the project boundary.
Selling carbon offsets is a business with limited regulation. Buyers should research companies before buying carbon offsets. Look for companies that offer transparency and accountability.
- Review information on carbon offset projects to confirm they are in line with your goals.
- Read policies to make sure projects are selected based on accepted standards and verified by independent third party verifiers.
- Check verification and audit reports.
Think About It
After completing my initial research, I decided to purchase carbon offsets for my oldest son’s air travel for the year. I chose Carbonfund.org, a nonprofit organization, that will use it for a reforestation project in the U.S. The cost to offset 6,000 miles of air travel was less than $12.
Buying a carbon offset is a small way to take responsibility for personal carbon emissions and contribute financially to projects that reduce emissions. However, flying 6,000 miles still generates over 1 metric ton of carbon emissions that would not have been generated if the flights had not been taken.
We still need to strive to reduce our carbon emissions.