Carbon Offsets Purchase: Don’t Buy Until You Know the “Removal Rule”

Georgette Kilgore headshot, wearing 8 Billion Trees shirt with forest in the background.Written by Georgette Kilgore

Carbon Offsets Credits | April 14, 2022

Carbon offsets purchase options are a way for individuals, businesses, and countries to reduce their carbon footprint; however, before investing in an offset program, knowing and understanding the less-talked-about “removal rule” can have a big impact on your efforts to help the planet.

While high-quality offset programs exist from reputable organizations, recent reports and studies show that a number of carbon offset projects do not actually eliminate emissions.

In fact, many ‘certified’ efforts simply store carbon for a period of time and then release it back into the atmosphere, which doesn’t help the environment or really erase a carbon footprint.

So, how do you know if the carbon offsets purchase you’re investing in is actually helping fight the growing problem of climate change? And how do you know that the best carbon offset programs will really remove emissions?

What Is the Removal Rule for a Carbon Offsets Purchase?

The removal rule, is simply the assurance that the offset you purchase will actually remove carbon emissions for good… not simply store them and release them in a few years.

Sadly, many programs do just that. They don’t remove carbon emissions, they just prolong them.

What are Carbon Offsets and Credits Used For?

The goal of a carbon offset project is to reduce the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere. It’s that simple.

By using tree planting for carbon offsetting, switching to renewable energies like solar and wind, conducting community projects that restore clean water, or using a biogas digester to capture and convert methane from landfills and agriculture into electricity, carbon offset projects are designed to both reduce emissions and remove existing CO2 from the atmosphere.

While this may seem like a simple equation, the vast amount of offset projects that can be used as carbon credits for companies aren’t really geared toward eliminating emissions. The “removal rule” is overlooked.

On average, Americans have a carbon footprint of around 16 tons a year, which is generated (on average) by energy use, travel, spending and diet. Globally, the average is around 4 tons per person.

Fossil fuel energy companies alone contribute close to 62% of greenhouse gas emissions.

Therefore, it’s no surprise that carbon offset projects are becoming such a popular investment for companies and individuals alike.

Many of us want to contribute to a healthy, clean, and green world. And being able to invest in projects that aim to do just that is a great way for us to collectively make our planet a better place.

For starters, carbon offset projects aim to help you offset the amount of carbon you produce by financially investing in the work of organizations that are actively working to establish carbon-reducing projects. Most organizations that operate carbon offset projects are easy to contribute towards and are often inexpensive depending on how much carbon you want to help to reduce. Which, is a major reason why many large corporations purchase carbon offset credits.

Typically, offset credit prices are around $3 to $6 per ton; however, the cost will vary based on the type of project, where the project is located, its “vintage year”, as well as any additional co-benefits connected with the offset project.

In theory, if you wanted to offset your yearly carbon footprint as an American consumer, you could spend less than $100 dollars to help reduce the carbon you generate (if the cost of the offset was $4.50 per ton at 16 tons).

Giant carbon footprint with co2 marked on it, hovering over the planet.

If you are a business owner, however, and you want to purchase carbon offset credits for your company, you should know right away that the cost per ton of an offset project does not necessarily correlate with the quality of the work. Though cheap offset projects may be of lower quality if a project is brand new, more expensive offset credits can be a sign of a marked-up price tag without any correlation to GHG reduction.

Paying attention to the vintage year, (when the actual carbon reduction occurred) of the carbon offset can help somewhat with this decision if there are a considerable number of unpurchased credits carried over year to year.

Beyond cost, the actual offset method used by a project is important for understanding if any carbon will actually be reduced.

Forest and conservation offset costs are typically based on the amount of carbon captured by new trees or by the amount of carbon that is not released by protecting older trees.

While trees are one of the best ways to capture GH — the Amazon Rainforest being the most known example of this — some carbon offset projects that plant trees are actually doing more harm than good.

For example, in forestry and conservation efforts, the type of trees planted is a crucial indicator for if positive offset efforts are taking place.

REDD Guidelines

REDD (Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) is a set of guidelines for national governments to conserve and enhance forestry efforts in developing countries that was established by the UNFCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change).

The policy aims to guide and incentive activities in the forest sector so that countries can implement meaningful carbon offset programs with a surplus of funding; however, REDD projects are often risky for communities to undertake as payments are based on the performance of the carbon offsets.

They can divert attention away from the amount of carbon produced by industrialized nations. And, they may also ignore the cultural relationship indigenous people of developed countries have with local forests.

Furthermore, REDD guidelines make no distinction between forests of trees native to the land, and trees that are invasive to an ecosystem.

What this means, is that invasive trees planted as part of REDD carbon offset projects can actually do more harm than good for climate change — and they can damage an area’s natural environment.

When non-native trees are planted as part of a forestry project, their roots can disrupt the land’s native soil. Causing a higher risk of fire, as well as releasing more carbon that’s stored in the soil than the tree can capture.

More fires mean more carbon emissions. And when invasive tree species begin to take over, they change the ecosystem’s entire dynamic.

So when carbon offset projects or local communities want to plant forests of native trees, forests of invasive trees that doing poorly, are often removed. Which, again, eventually releases carbon, as trees do not eliminate carbon, but instead use carbon to grow. Storing it in their trunks and processing CO2 from the air during photosynthesis to produce foliage.

Invasive Danger

For example, did you know that, while trees are the best offset technology we possess, invasive trees are sometimes used in forestry projects?

This leads to significant environmental ramifications down the line — and may not even reduce the amount of carbon the offset provider claims.

All this to say — carbon offsets only go so far in reducing humanity’s contribution to climate change. Ideally, a carbon offset encourages you to reduce your carbon footprint as well. It’s a little contradictory to buy offset credits without actually making personal changes to reduce your carbon footprint.

One reason why offset credits are so appealing to large corporations is that by paying for a forest in the Amazon to be conserved, corporations believe they can balance out their carbon without actually reducing their emissions.

Since their business operations are often entangled with significant carbon emissions, it’s easier — and more appealing — for them to simply invest in carbon offset credits instead of restructuring how they generate revenue. For some companies, purchasing carbon offset credits is more of a PR stunt than an actual indication of their company transitioning to green behaviors.

But to make real, meaningful change, carbon offset projects shouldn’t aim to only cancel out your carbon, but provide education on how to engage in more sustainable activities and lifestyle choices.

Sustainable Travel International

The aviation industry contributed 2.5% of all CO2 emissions in 2018. Though, carbon is not the only pollutant aircraft produce.

Aircraft actually play a role in what’s known as “radiative forcing.” This is a term that describes an energy imbalance that’s created on the Earth’s climate system — whether by things like volcanic emissions or human activity.

Blue image with white airplane emitting white smoke in bubbles.

When an aircraft is flying, the plane is emitting energy into the atmosphere. And if more energy is taken in than released, our atmosphere becomes warmer. Because of this radiative forcing, air travel’s addition to climate change is about 3.5% of all contributors.

While this number and the carbon produced are low compared to other contributors, the issue with aircraft comes from our current inability to offset the additional pollutants as well as the carbon aircraft produce.

Renewables, nuclear, and the transition to electric cars can help us move to a more sustainable way of transport — but renewable aircraft designs are still in their infancy. Partly because the wings of aircraft are where fuel is stored, and they’re not currently designed to be large enough to carry hydrogen fuel. And, other renewable fuels for aircraft are still being developed.

Additionally, while genuine carbon offset projects will help reduce some of the carbon from aircraft — with familiar airline companies offering offset programs to their passengers — aircraft emissions are just one part of the carbon produced from international travel.

The Carbon Footprint of Tourism

When you travel to another country, it’s quite likely you are going to stay at a hotel, dine out, and even shop while you’re there. Almost everyone participates in these kinds of activities when they travel because we want to have a good experience!

But, in reality, the accumulation of waste from the tourism industry is considerable. For example, hotels in the United Kingdom collect up to 79,000 metric tons of food waste every year. While food is important and dining out is a good time, what this means is that when food is wasted, the carbon emissions produced to prepare this food is adding up — even reaching as much as 40% of global emissions.

Additionally, the shopping and buying habits of tourists are likely different from locals. So, this means items and souvenirs tourists purchase are often made from materials from China, then shipped somewhere else for manufacturing. Which, again, adds to tourism’s carbon footprint.

So, when so much carbon is being produced — carbon offset programs are often not enough to counteract all of the emissions, unless actual sustainable practices are adopted, or an additional carbon offset purchase is made.

Calculate your flying footprint right now:

Do Carbon Offsets Work?

In short — yes. However, not all carbon offset programs are genuinely helping offset carbon emissions. And the ones that do, like building solar panels, wind turbines, and reforestation efforts, take time to build, plan, and execute. Not to mention potential funding startup costs.

Carbon offset programs, like trees themselves, can help our efforts against climate change; albeit, they do not produce immediate results. All while we’re still producing high levels of carbon, and while emissions are rebounding following increased activity after COVID-19.

Essentially, carbon offset projects are helping us gain returns on our carbon budget. But the amount of carbon we’re producing is leaving us in the negative. According to the Global Carbon Budget, a collective of researchers and scientists around the world, it’s estimated that in 11 years, the earth has a 50% chance of a permanent temperature increase of 1.5 C by 2033.

In the meantime, you can still learn about how to live more sustainably, and invest in carbon offset projects that are contributing meaningfully to the fight against climate change.

What are The Best Carbon Offset Projects For Actually Reducing Carbon Emissions?

The best carbon offset projects are often quite extensive. This means that they don’t simply plant trees and claim that the work is done.

The carbon offset programs that make the most difference are the ones that are aiming for long-term, beneficial environmental returns for their efforts. Often using high-quality research to inform their work, truly innovative carbon offset projects are looking at the big picture.

The first step is understanding what kind of project the organization is operating. If they aren’t planting and protecting existing native trees, you may want to reconsider the project. Wind turbines can be good choices for offset programs because they actively reduce the need for non-renewable energy. Water sanitation programs ensure that less firewood is chopped down for water purification in developing nations.

Another way to identify and choose a carbon offset provider is by their guarantee of additionality. Was their project possible because of carbon funding? If not, the project may have been completed anyway, which means you could have purchased credits from a program that could have benefited from the investment.

Also, pay attention to the company’s website and online presence. If the company is offering science-backed facts and high-quality education about climate change on their blog, it’s far more likely they are doing what they claim to be. Transparency is key. Read through each site’s content. Locate Gold Standard certification.

You can also ask yourself if the program is doing more than carbon offset. Are they positively impacting the communities they work and interact with? Are they committed to protecting biodiversity in even small ways? Co-benefits such as these are important to look for when choosing a carbon offset credit to purchase.

Looking to the age of the organization can be an indicator of legitimate offsetting experience. Newer organizations may be lacking the technical know-how or the necessary community relationships to be successful.

Notable Offest Programs

To help you find examples of high-quality carbon offset projects, here is a small collection of notable organizations.

These organizations conduct programs in a transparent, ethical manner — and have a net positive impact on the environment.

Terrapass

Terrapass conducts a wide variety of carbon offset programs around the United States. From landfill gas capture, wind farms, and even farm power (a project that uses anaerobic digestion to help local communities reduce water waste from animal husbandry), Terrapass aims to fight climate change on several fronts. Terrapass prides itself on the fact that all of its offset programs are verified by third-party verifiers — highlighting their commitment to transparency.

COTAP

COTAP, which stands for Carbon Offset to Alleviate Poverty is a unique carbon offset program. Committed to both high-quality carbon offset projects, COTAP is also actively working to provide social mobility to impoverished peoples in developing nations.

In short, choosing the best company to purchase carbon credits from depends largely on the company’s reputation, transparency, and the actual type of project they are organizing. When you purchase credits from an offsetting project that is planting invasive species or neglecting legitimate conservation work by preserving parts of endangered forests, carbon emissions are simply not reduced. And, the natural biodiversity of a land is put at risk.

Before you buy into any offset program, take the time to ensure that the one you’ve chosen claims to do what they say, and aren’t looking to take advantage of less-informed buyers.

Any significant purchase you make in your life is often the result of a lot of research and consideration. So when you choose to invest in the Earth with a carbon offsets purchase, your investment goes far beyond benefiting yourself; it benefits your loved ones, your community, and every person who is on the earth right now, and those who will be in the future.