How to Go Green: Carbon Offsets

how to green your carbon offsets windmill photo

Newspapers, radio, television, magazines, blogs, podcasts, in fact any media you can think of, has awoken to the issue of climate change or global warming. When mainstream publications, the likes of Sports Illustrated and Vanity Fair, cover the topic you know there is something going on. Not to mention that a documentary full of graphs, statistics and grainy photos of glaciers can scoop up an Oscar. And thousands of eminent scientists, the world over, sign a document concurring that there was 90 percent certainty that the planet has a temperature and it is a human induced fever. To reduce the patient's prognosis of increased convulsions; such as hurricanes, droughts, floods, heat waves, etc; experimental treatments are underway.

Carbon offsets: a tool to fight global warming
One of these is carbon offsets. Carbon dioxide, a significant greenhouse gas, is emitted into the atmosphere as a result our intensive use of fossil fuels like oil and coal. In simplistic terms this is 'bad'. One means of doing 'good' is by paying to balance (or offset) the equation, by funding projects that reduce our emissions of carbon (and other greenhouse gases). If only it were as simple as it sounds.

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Top Carbon Offset Tips

  1. Remember: Offsets Won't Save Us

    The only reason to buy carbon offsets is to compensate for the greenhouse gases you contribute to Earth's atmosphere, that you can't change in any other way. While a bandaid can help a wound to heal, we all know that prevention is better than a cure. Implementation of real changes in your life will have more impact than any carbon offset you purchase. You see all these statistics about it being the equivalent of taking x number of cars off the road. Catching the train, tram, bus or riding your bike also takes a car off the road! Voting with your physical presence carries more weight than a mostly invisible deduction on your bank statement. Your neighbours see you walking to the bus stop, your butt takes up another train seat contributing demand for public transit, your work colleagues talk about you arriving on your bike. Your actions have a ripple effect. So the first step is to reduce the energy load you directly create. If after you've done the best you can on that score, only then might there be merit in offsetting those activities that you have less control over. But do so aware that offsets are no silver bullet.

  2. Embrace The Forgotten Offset: Green Power

    The TV, the home computer, the kettle, the stereo, often the hot water, the air conditioning and a plethora of other thingamees in your house all use electricity from the grid. Many of us would love to have a solar panels on the roof or a wind turbine in the back yard so that our energy came from a renewable, non-greenhouse polluting source like coal. But most of us don't, often because even if it saves money over time, the upfront cost seems too scary. But you can run your house (or your business) on solar, wind, or hydro and biomass energy without having a dam or pig farm in your yard. Contact your local power utility as ask about their Green Power or Green Energy options. For a few dollars more on your normal bill you will be helping them fund the establishment of such clean energy facilities. Utilities are required by law to provide a supply of renewable energy to the grid, equal to the kilowatt hours of those customers signed up for GreenPower. The more who sign up, the more solar and wind farms that have to be built.

  3. Be Nosey

    For those times where you can't make the appropriate behavioural changes, and feel that carbon offsetting is your best options, spend a little time getting to know your offset provider. Undertake a little research, just as you would when buying a new washing machine or bed. What will your offsets go to? Are their projects certified? Does any independent authority audit them to ensure your money is going to the projects mentioned in the marketing? Do they have a solid client list? Contact some of those clients and see what they thought of the service? What is the price per tonne? How does this compare? Do they use any recognised guidelines to prepare their calculations? Are your funds supporting new projects, not 'business as usual'? As The Guardian newspaper put it, "There is nothing but the customer's canniness to stop a company claiming to be running a scheme which does not exist; claiming wildly exaggerated carbon cuts; selling offsets that have already been sold; charging hugely inflated prices."

  4. See the Trees for the Forests

    One of the most well known forms of carbon offsetting is to plant trees. The idea being that as trees grow they absorb carbon dioxide, one of the most prevalent greenhouse gases. The carbon is then locked, captured or sequestered in that tree until it is burnt, or falls over and become forest humus, at which time the carbon is released again into the atmosphere. While all this is true, we don't yet know just how effective trees are at trapping carbon. Scientists now suspect that it works best in tropical forests and might even have a detrimental effect in locations closer to the poles. Also it takes many years for a tree to grow, anywhere from 15 to 150 years, so the capture of carbon is taking place over a long period. And our problem with Climate Change is right here and now. That's not to say we shouldn't be planting more trees, we should for their proven abilities in improving soil retention, salinity reduction, microclimate stability, biodiversity habitat and so on, but we shouldn't be relying on them to save our climate dilemma.

  5. Offset Carbon with Wind Power

    Rather than plant trees some offset providers support the growth in renewable energy generation, via the usual suspects of wind farms and solar photovoltaic plants. But other options may include hydro, waste-to-energy, geothermal, methane extraction from landfill or agricultural residues. In many cases your financial contribution is directly buying more wind turbines or silicon for solar panels. But it might also be making such facilities viable. Often new renewable energy plants have to compete with entrenched and subsidised fossil fuel energy systems, like coal or natural gas. Your offset money oftentimes goes to helping the renewable energy provider sell their initially higher cost electricity at near to equal parity to those well established energy industries. You are helping benign energy set up a beachhead on hostile shores. Seek out verified clean energy projects ahead of reforestation ones.

  6. Go for Gold

    Only countries and large corporations trade offsets under the Kyoto Protocol, the offsets you and I, and small businesses have access to are known as Voluntary Offsets. They are not binding. We don't have to do do them. But we do want the people we buy from to adhere to some standard. The de facto benchmark is aGold Standard project. These are assessed by a consortium of 38 international green groups, including the likes of WWF, the David Suzuki Foundation and Greenpeace, and follow the same basic premise as the Kyoto Protocol. But double check which projects are currently meeting the standard, and which are in the process of being assessed.

  7. Certify your offsets

    Gold Standard aren't the only ones in the game, however. Some governments have their own accreditation programs. For example in Australia there are authorised offset companies registered with the New South Wales state government, under a greenhouse gas abatement scheme. The Federal government in that country also has its own Greenhouse Friendly labelling program for national offset projects. Look for similar verification in your country. Much of the criticism of carbon offsets is not so much about the intent, but rather the process, and how it has lacked transparency and verification. It has been likened to a new Wild West, so it makes sense to settle in the town where Wyatt Earp is sherrif. Only sign up to those programs that offer the highest level of accountability.

  8. Make Offset Demands

    While tree-planting is of long term biological merit, and renewal energy generation of great significance, neither of these will really make a difference, if the average citizen doesn't becomes engaged too. We need to use less energy, period. This is where the third ( and arguably the h2est) leg of the carbon neutral stool enters the stage. Energy efficiency is about making our homes and businesses less demanding on our electricity utilities. It delivers immediate and measurable reductions in CO2 emissions. So one of the more effective carbon offsets is the funding of energy audits and installation of the likes of low energy compact fluorescent bulbs and low flow shower heads. This about reducing their inadvertent demand for energy for while still providing their quality of life. It is also known as Demand Side Abatement -- reduce the overall demand for electricity and you also decrease reliance on greenhouse gas emitting fossil fuel energy.

  9. Know the word: Additionality

    One of the crucial keys to carbon offsets is known as 'Additionality.' Were these projects going to happen anyway, whether you paid your carbon neutral fee or not? You wouldn't want to pay extra for your fries, if they were already included in a meal deal, would you? Offsetting carbon means displacing individual emissions, be they personal, business or event related, and this can only be accomplished if a new carbon displacement project is occurring as a result of your financial contribution. Ask hard questions. It's your money. You're buying something way more important than burger.

  10. DIY Offsets

    There is no free lunch connected to our carbon emissions. If we continue as we are, our energy thirsty ways will change the weather and the ecosystems that support our current lifestyle. We can pay someone else to make changes on our behalf, via offsets. Or we can take responsibility to make those changes ourselves, and this has its own costs in time, energy, mindset and/or money. But at least they will be personal and tangible changes. Compost our household waste so less goes to landfill, where it forms methane, a gas more harmful to global warming than even carbon dioxide. Drive less. Vacation nearer home. Join a treeplanting day with a community group. Install a solar hot water system on our home. Commit to eating at least one meat-free meal a week. Install draft excluder strips on external doors, replace incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents or LEDs. Send the market a signal by ensuring your shares and stocks are invested in renewable energy power utilities, instead of fossil fuel ones. It is these sorts of behavioral changes, which will, collectively, have the most lasting impact.

  11. Smile

    Global warming is a crisis. It may indeed turn out to have, as has been suggested, higher economic costs than both World Wars and the Great Depression combined. But it serves none of us well to go get all down in the mouth about it. Hope can drive courage and determination, which ultimately gets results. Slavery, women's rights, communism, apartheid, colonial rule, polio, flight, space travel, Everest, etc. All points in human history where we have shown to ourselves than we can overcome the seemingly unassailable. The future is ours to jointly create. A poor craftsman may blame his tools, but a wise one choses them wisely. He doesn't pound a nail with a screwdriver. Offsets are a useful tool, but only when correctly deployed. Use them with care, to craft a tomorrow that gives your children cause for hope.

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Interesting Facts about Carbon Offsets

  • $5 billion: The amount of money invested in the market for carbon offsets, in 2006.

  • 25 percent: Percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions the United States is responsible for, although the U.S. has only 4.5 percent of the world's population.

  • 1 metric tonne: Carbon equal to 1,000 kilograms or 2,205 U.S. pounds. 1 U.S. ton equals 0.91 metric tonnes.

  • $1-20: Dollars per tonne of carbon spent on carbon credits in the voluntary carbon trading market.

  • 100 million: Tonnes of CO2 emissions cut this year on the voluntary carbon offset market.

  • 1 tonne: Carbon dioxide that would fill the average family home; so most households produce carbon dioxide equivalent to 15 times the size of their home each year. Or put another way, one ton of CO2 correlates to the volume of a swimming pool, 10 meters wide, 25 meters long and 2 meters deep.

  • 1989: The year the first carbon offset project was launched, to mitigate against construction of a new 183 megawatt coal-fired power plant in Connecticut. It entailed planting 50 million non-native pine and eucalyptus trees on some 40,000 small farm holdings in the Western Highlands region of Guatemala. (12 years on farmers were still not properly paid for their tree planting).

  • 10: The number of carbon offset projects listed on Gold Standard Project Registry, of which six have been validated by an UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change).

  • 3000 tonnes: Carbon offset in the first 20 months after British Airways announced a scheme where passengers could offset their share of the carbon produced by any flight. Only 3000 out of the estimated 27 million tonnes was offset (less than the carbon dispersed by a single day of its flights between London and New York).

Sources: New Scientist, Worldwatch Institute, Financial Times, New Internationalist, Gold Standard, Alternet, Energy for Sustainable Development Bulgaria, The Guardian
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Carbon Offsets: The Defintion

What is carbon dioxide and why does it matter?
It's the chemical union of one carbon, and two oxygen atoms (hence CO2), mostly appearing as a gas. In fact one of the key gases, along with nitrogen, oxygen, argon and water vapour, that constitute the air we breathe and thus the atmosphere that acts as skin separating us from deep space.

Carbon dioxide makes up about 12 percent of what is known as the greenhouse effect, whereby heat from the sun reflected from the Earth's surface is effectively bounced back into that atmosphere, rather than escaping into space. This captured warmth makes the planet habitable.

Additionally CO2 is an essential ingredient in photosynthesis--the ability of plants to convert carbon into the sugars, starches and cellulose they use for growing. One tonne of dry wood is roughly equivalent to almost two tonnes of carbon dioxide fixed from the atmosphere.

The problem is that the volume of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere has been increasing, greater than our forests, oceans or soils ability to capture it. In January of 2007 the measured atmospheric CO2 concentration was 383 ppm (parts per million). That's an increase of 99 ppm in the past 175 years, with 78 percent of that increase occurring in just the past 47 years.

Although CO2 does occur naturally, and is vital for our planet's well being, too much of good thing is, well, not so good. In their Fourth Assessment Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) observed that we need to limit the global temperature rise to less than 2 degrees Celsius, above the pre-industrial level-- a threshold beyond which catastrophic effects on a global scale become much more likely. To mange this the concentration of atmospheric greenhouse gases has to be stabilized at about 450 parts per million (ppm), only 67 ppm from where we are now. With greenhouse gas emissions, from the likes of CO2, rising about 2 ppm per year, as are populations and western style energy intensive living, we don't have much time to bring our excessive carbon emissions under control. According to the IPCC we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 60- 80 percent below current global levels, we need to do it now. Very rapidly. And bearing in mind that horse that has bolted is much harder to reign in, than one already in the stables. Worldwatch Institute has lots more info on carbon dioxide.

What's this Kyoto Protocol everyone talks about?
It is an agreement ratified by over a 160 countries that they will work towards reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. Each of the signatory countries agreed to meet mandatory reduction targets, averaging about 7% below 1990 levels, by 2012. It was adopted at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, held in December 1997 in Kyoto, Japan, as an amendment on the international treaty on climate change. As of December 169 countries had signed on. The two western countries who are yet to sign are the United States and Australia. Nor have Croatia and Kazakhstan. India and China have inked the document, but don't have binding targets to meet.

As part of the Kyoto Protocol, an arrangement known as the The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which allows industrialised countries to invest in emission reducing projects in developing countries. This is one of the key platforms of international carbon trading.

Read a copy of the Kyoto Protocol here.

Wikipedia is also a good source for plenty of easily digestible information on Carbon Dioxide, and Kyoto Protocol.

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Where to Get Carbon Offsets

Just because we've listed a few companies here doesn't mean we endorse them in any way, (like all businesses noted on TreeHugger and Planet Green) we've merely chosen them as representative, in this case, of the carbon offset industry. But they are merely tip of swiftly melting iceberg. The world is now flooded, not only by 1 in 1,000 year weather anomalies, but businesses proffering a partial solution. Some will be a good deal, others less so. Caveat emptor: Let the buyer beware.
Drive Neutral
e-Blue Horizons
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Carbon Offsets: From the Archives

Dig deeper into these articles on carbon offsets from the TreeHugger and Planet Green archives.
Finding and using carbon offsets
"Carbon offsets" and "carbon-neutral" are phrases you'll hear getting tossed around a lot these days; be sure to find an offset company you can trust.

Read up on Future Forests, before they had a name change.

Ecobusinesslinks has completed a comprehensive comparison of the nonprofit and for profit organizations providing carbon offsets.

American Electric Power Co. will buy 4.6 million carbon credits between 2010 and 2017 to support the first large-scale livestock methane offset program in the United States. "The project will capture and destroy methane from approximately 400,000 head of livestock on as many as 200 farms."

London Rising Tide, a group of climate change activists, occupied the head offices of a leading UK offset providers, claiming a 'Carbon Neutral Con'.

New Internationalist magazine puts carbon offsets under the spot light.

The Great Canadian Carbon Offset set out to raise the profile of carbon-offset programs for air travelers, and to shine a light on patterns of excessive consumption.

The UK's CarbonNeutral warned that the already controversial carbon offset industry is at risk of being discredited by 'cowboy' operators.

Built on Guilt. Are carbon offsets similar to the indulgences of the 15th and 16th centuries, where the Dutch literally paid for their sins?

Companies and organizations using carbon offsets
Organic Bouquet delivers carbon neutral flowers.

Personal Carbon Credit Swipe Cards proposed for British citizens by environment minister, David Miliband.

Google teams up with °Climate Group for carbon offsets.

Berkeley's Greek Theatre goes carbon neutral.

The One Ton CO2 Project sells organic T's to help buy regional carbon offsets. They also suggest combining simple things like eating meat-free meals every other day, parking the car for 60 days this year and walking, cycling, or taking public transit instead and switching from hot to warm or cold water for every load of laundry will also collectively save a ton (literally) of CO2.

Ford announced that it has joined with TerraPass to educate car buyers about the option of offsetting their greenhouse emissions by investing in renewables.

Spanish Postal Service start planting trees with Bosques de la Tierra, with euro cent, in each euro spent on one sell 'green' envelopes and boxes made from recycled paper and cardboard.

Syriana the geopolitical oil flick starring George Clooney, (for which he won an Academy Award) announced that the film has gone "climate neutral."

The organizers of the Turin Olympic Winter Games tried to offset carbon dioxide emissions and save water and energy use during the 16-day event and the European Union praised them for their eco-friendly initiatives.

Carbonfund's Carbon Calculator uses information from the US Department of Energy's Energy Information Agency, academic, and non-governmental organizations to assess carbon dioxide emissions.

Rather than providing users with a price to pay for offsets, Bello Mundo's "comparator", from Sustainable Travel International, shows how travelers can offset those carbon emissions by adjusting activities in their daily lives.

Take a peek at College of the Atlantic:, first carbon neutral US college.

"Sweet Land" is the latest carbon neutral movie production.

TerraPass and Expedia Partner to sell flight offsets.

Carbonfund introduces carbon free shipping for internet shopping.

TreeHugger looks into the carbon offset project at the Tontitown Landfill.

New Zealand firm Celsias bills itself as "...the world's first online community that allows regions, businesses or community groups to be paid for reducing the carbon emissions from their everyday energy use..."

Greenest Village in Britain? Chew Magna goes for zero carbon and has already taken on a broad range of projects, from restoring an old water mill to arranging talks on micro-generation or homemade biofuels.

The real story on carbon offsets
My Views on Carbon Offsets: TreeHugger Editor, Michael Graham Richard weighs in.

Carbon offsetting helps American native people, creating jobs and restoring their lands by planting trees as carbon offsets. But its not without its problems.

Designing away the problems of offsetting, a guest posting by Zerofootprint.

Eco-lifestyle company, Gaiam, announced that they have partnered with The Conservation Fund to launch the world's first sustainable shipping program.

Carbon Planet: a transparent carbon offsetter?

TreeHugger Picks: Carbon-Neutral Everything

Orlando Bloom launches Global Cool.

GreenFleet calculate that your car produces 4.3 tonnes of greenhouse gas annually and plant 17 trees to compensate.

When we first found Terrapass, investing in energy reduction programs within industry and assisting in the establishment of renewable energy plants, like windpower.

We acknowledge Joy of Tech's classic cartoon on the issue.

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Further Reading on Carbon Offsets

Get more info on carbon offsets in these other worthwhile sources.

HowStuffWorks knows how carbon offsets work, including why people buy carbon offsets, and how to buy them.

The Tufts Institute, widely regarded and one of the most authority sources on carbon offsets is overflowing with information, like a no-nonsense digital brochure on the topic and they also have an overwhelming extensive list of the companies internationally offering carbon offsets.

A lovely little primer in layperson terms on all things carbon offset related can be found at Unravelit.

The Guardian newspaper does some digging and finds a hole, not once, but twice.

Carbon Trade Watch's Carbon Neutral Myth PDF.

The Sydney Morning Herald investigates a carbons offsetter's struggle to find enough land to plant all their pledged trees. And then discovers that even when they are planted their future is not assured, especially when confronted with (climate change induced) long term drought.

The ever reliable Wikipedia has a useful page on carbon offsets. is the European-basedcarbon trading internet marketplace, while the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX) is "North America's only and the world's first global marketplace for integrating voluntary legally binding emissions reductions with emissions trading and offsets for all six greenhouse gases."

The British Financial Times uncovered widespread failings in carbon offset programs but went on to provide 'A guide to good carbon offsetting', even offering an online Interactive guide.

New Internationalist magazine also did an expose on the whole issue and they weren't impressed. Read one or two of their articles citing their concerns. Again its is not so much the concept they struggle with but the on the ground management that ensures effective results.

Another esteemed publication, WorldWatch Magazine has devoted a goodly chunk of its July/August 07 issue to the challenges of the carbon offset industry. At time of writing this issue was available for purchase online.

How to Go Green: Carbon Offsets
Newspapers, radio, television, magazines, blogs, podcasts, in fact any media you can think of, has awoken to the issue of climate change or global warming. When mainstream publications, the likes of Sports Illustrated and Vanity Fair, cover the topic

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