Summary:

Instead of paying an organization to offset your emissions, spend that money to decrease your own emissions. It is fun, easy, and you know the money is being put to good use.

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All the Facts:

Carbon emission offsetting is tricky. Great options do not exist. I’ll go over some of the issues, arguments pro and con, and ultimately make a recommendation for your best course of action.

The market for carbon offsetting is not regulated. Most offset programs are, at best, terrible and, at worst, a scam. The Christian Science Monitor quotes a Greenpeace investigator Rolf Skar as saying at least 75% of carbon offset programs are “garbage.” Most programs fall short of basic expectations and third party verification companies don’t verify results. They evaluate the commitment to do a project as though it were project completion. Even the Vatican was lied to about carbon offsets. If people are lying to the Pope about carbon offsets, they’ll lie to you too. According to David Hales, who has represented the US in international environmental negotiations, “The market is dominated by pure junk.”

Most carbon calculators provide you with a way to offset your emissions with a click of a button. It’s fast and easy, but does it really do what it claims? NPR’s Planet Money did a segment on emissions offsetting which concluded that the offsetting program they researched actually offset only 10% of the carbon paid for. Then the expert they were interviewing stated that the result was typical.

Most programs are scam, but there are the well intentioned failures too. Experts tend to vilify carbon offsetting for a variety of reason. One of the most common reasons is that offsetting programs frequently define offsetting so liberally no true offsetting is involved. For instance, many carbon offset programs use planting trees as a way to offset emissions, but that simply does not work. Trees sequester emissions. They soak up carbon as they grow. The process locks carbon into a jail of sorts. That would work great if the jail sentence were permanent, but trees don’t live forever. They die, decompose, and emit the stored carbon. Planting a tree is, at best, kicking the can down the road.

Some also see evidence that, people are okay polluting if they pay to do it. For a funny, satirical take on carbon offsetting, take a look at the site cheatneutral.com. Yes, there are some problems with the analogy, but you see what they are getting at. For a more scholarly take on paying for absolution of guilt, there is the daycare study highlighted in the book Freakonomics. Economists were curious if there would be more or less tardiness by parents picking up children from daycare if a fee was levied for each late pickup. They found that as soon as a fee was introduced, tardiness increased and didn’t level off until the number of late pickups doubled. Paying for emissions offsets would seem to be a nearly identical situation.

How to offset emissions the right way

Since it appears that the vast majority of the offsetting organizations do not provide the offsets they claim, and there is no way to verify if a particular organization will actually follow through with specific projects, take the do-it-yourself approach. It is surprisingly easy, just choose from the list below.

  1. If somehow you have stumbled onto this page first and have not seem my renewable energy pages easy and intermediate, check those out. Replacing all of your lights with LEDs makes a huge difference. It is likely to decrease your electricity usage by approximately 8%.
  2. If you haven’t completely transitioned your home to electrical, do that. It will instantly reduce your emissions by tapping into the 30% of the grid that is emissions free.
  3. Put in a solar array on your roof or property, if your roof or property orientation works well for solar (south facing). With a low interest rate loan, you will be saving money and getting rid of a big chunk of carbon emissions. Even if the project is just break-even go ahead and do it. You were going to spend money one offsetting anyway right?
  4. Get an electric car. You might already want one because of how much fun electrics are to drive. Offsetting is just the excuse you need to pull the trigger!
  5. Have you completed 1-4 already? Then buy a friend or family member a gift. If that seems too forward, just make it a birthday or holiday gift. Surely you know someone who does not have a smart thermostat or still hasn’t upgraded to LEDs.
  6. Run a contest among your friends, tell them you are doing your carbon offsets for the year and the first person to buy an electric car will get your next year of offset dollars.
  7. Do a raffle at your office for a smart thermostat. Use the money to offset the purchase of another smart thermostat. (Can you tell I’m a big fan of smart thermostats? It’s because they lead to about a 14% reduction in heating and cooling energy usage. Most heating in the U.S. is fossil fuel based. The savings on energy costs pays for the device in under 2 year. It’s a win-win.)

There are a million ways to decrease carbon emissions. Whatever you do, try to make it fun, easy and convenient. It will make you want to do it year after year. All of those projects mentioned above will be unlikely to offset as much carbon as offsetting organizations will claim they can accomplish with the same amount of money, but if the Planet Money episode is right, then those claims are off by a factor of ten. What’s more, DIY projects that offset emissions cost money up front, but after that they save you money every day. Speaking of money…

How much money should you commit to your personal offsetting endeavor? According to the EPA, the average U.S. household’s carbon emissions total 39,403 lbs per year. To get an estimate of your own emissions, check out the EPA’s carbon calculator. The next part gets tricky. If you want to imagine that your chosen form of offsetting is as cheap as can possibly be found externally (through scam offset organizations), then you can assume $0.10 per ton will take care of things, that means about two dollars for the average household. On the other end of the scale, there are credits sold for $120/ton. Meaning the average household will need to spend $2,400 to offset its emissions. The real costs are somewhere in between and it would be silly to try and pinpoint an exact dollar amount especially since my recommendation is for each person to pick something that they can do that works with their life. So, if you have $2,400 to spend, do it. If not, don’t worry about it. Do what you can. No one is looking over your shoulder.

When you get right down to it, one person’s lifestyle changes will not change the world, neither will 10 or 100 or 1,000. This site is simply here to help people to do something about climate change and to do that something well. Eventually when that 1,000 turns to one million or one billion, we are really doing something good.

It’s crazy… but it just might work!