Carbon Offset Guide: 101 for New Buyers in 2021

By Georgette Kilgore | Updated on August 18, 2021

Largely due to consumerism mindset and the industrial era, the planet is absolutely drowning in carbon emissions. But, don’t be too frightened though, this carbon offsets guide shows individuals and business the best ways to avoid scammy programs and how make sure when buying carbon offsets, the revenue is being used to help the planet, not enrich tricksters.

A woman holding a blueprint that says “Carbon Offset Guide 101” in grassy meadows that have trees, solar panels, and wind turbines.

What are Carbon Offsets?

Carbon Offsets make it possible for individuals and organizations to reduce (or even eliminate) their carbon footprint. This is done by investing in projects and programs that reduce global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). The primary GHG targeted by offsets is CO2, which the USDA has determined to be one of the primary drivers of climate change.

Most carbon offsets are designed to “balance out” the GHG emissions of a specific activity or event, like a round-trip flight to Europe or a big family wedding. Other carbon offset examples include packages for daily driving, road trips, food delivery services, and even binge-watching on your favorite streaming service.

For eco-friendly companies and small businesses that want to make responsible decisions for the environment, carbon offsets are often purchased for large-scale construction projects and expansions. Learn more here. However, it’s important to do your research when choosing a program, because there are plenty of carbon offset scams out there.

How Do Carbon Offsets Work?

When anyone purchases an offset (whether an individual or a business), their money is used to fund projects (like planting trees or funding green energy) that reduce a specific amount of CO2 emissions. For commercial flights and road trips, emissions can be estimated using an online carbon calculator. Other offsets are offered at a set-rate basis using carbon estimates from third party researchers like Green-e Climate Standard and Verified Carbon Standard (Verra).

The type of projects funded by carbon offsets vary. Some are designed to increase the “built-in” carbon storage capacity of our planet, like planting trees, managing forests, and preventing deforestation. Other projects might target environmental solutions by removing CO2 and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, like methane capture technology.

Are Carbon Offsets a Scam?

Unfortunately, until recently there has been very little regulation over the voluntary carbon offsets market. This has allowed a number of malicious scam operations to thrive, stealing or misusing offset proceeds and threatening the public’s perception of carbon offset companies. While some independent organizations have emerged to help protect consumers (like Gold Standard and the American Carbon Registry, among others), choosing a good carbon offset company requires a little bit of research.

Are Carbon Offsets Effective?

While there are many legitimate offset providers, unfortunately, not all carbon offset programs are as effective at reducing global GHG emissions. Some programs are poorly managed, with little to no oversight of actual project sites. Other programs are outright scams, designed to take advantage of eco-friendly business and individuals who are only trying to help the planet. So it’s wise to take the time to evaluate the legitimacy of the offset program of interest.

How to Verify the Legitimacy of Carbon Offsets: Transparency & Due Diligence

The first step in verifying the legitimacy of a carbon offset program is to look around their website. You or your environmental team should be able to find detailed information on the specific programs that offset dollars are supporting. This includes the exact amount of CO2 that is being offset for the purchase price.

Another way to evaluate a carbon neutrality project is to check the organization’s partners. This can include foundations and companies, as well as international government organizations.

Plus, any legitimate offset provider will be able to provide documentation that they partner with local and state governments.

In addition, everyone has the ability to use Google to find more information on a group or company. Use search terms like “Company X + Scam”, “Company X + Review”, or “Company X + News.” Be sure to sort the search results by “date” and read the most recent articles and reviews.

Lastly, if the corporation is a 501(c)(3), not-for-profit organization, their tax returns can be found online and the allocation of their funds are visible to the public. In the past, some organization’s executives pay themselves up to 10 percent of the non-profit’s total revenue. What’s even more shocking is some projects are taking 20 percent of total revenue to pay all the executives any given year, not including other employees in the organization. Most of the time you can easily find financial records on the website, but if not try searching google with “Company Y + tax returns.”

8BillionTrees is dedicated to full transparency for their projects and initiatives. In addition to providing detailed information on tree-planting projects around the globe, the website also offers a comprehensive list of partner organizations, including Eden Restoration Projects and others.

An image of pitch pine, scrub pine, and oak trees on Foothills Parkway in Smoky Mountain National Park with white text that explains 3 ways to get involved in mitigating climate change. 1. Support global replanting efforts. 2. Reach out in your community. 3. Buy eco-friendly products.

Quality Control & Other Factors to Consider

In some cases, an organization with honest ecological intentions might be running a carbon project that is ineffective at actually reducing carbon emissions.

Additionality & Leakage

Additionality refers to whether or not a carbon offset’s total greenhouse gas reduction would have occurred anyway. In other words, if the project or program in question would have been pursued even without carbon offset funding, these offsets are not additional.

Leakage refers to any unintended increase in greenhouse gas emissions as a result of the project. An example of this would be if a carbon project designed to protect a specific forest area unintentionally drives the deforestation to a different, unprotected area. In this example, the emissions reductions gained from protecting one forest are canceled out by the destruction of another.

Permanence is the measure of a project’s ability to maintain emissions reductions over time. In order to be considered permanent, project managers must have a plan in place to protect these reductions.

For example, a carbon offset company can’t just plant a bunch of trees and call it a day. They need to work with landowners and even local governments to protect the new-growth from future destruction.

Implementation & Oversight

The way that a program is implemented and managed can have a significant effect on both total emissions reductions, and how well the program is working together with local governments and communities. Proper implementation starts with research and careful planning. Oversight means making sure that the project is actually achieving its goals, whether that’s planting trees, restoring ecosystems, or scrubbing CO2 ­directly from the air with Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage (CCS).

Forest-carbon projects like those operated by 8 Billion Trees are implemented alongside educational programs. By providing volunteers, landowners, and local governments with critical ecological training, offset companies can ensure that their projects are additional, leak-free, and permanent.

Estimating Your Carbon Emissions – How to Calculate Emissions or Carbon Footprint

A graphic image of earth in the center with separate icons on the border showing different sources of CO2 such as the coal industry, production industries, electricity, humans, agriculture, deforestation and the oil/gas industry.

The first step in reducing your household’s or business’ carbon footprint is knowing your impact. With our online CO2 emissions calculator, it’s easy to calculate the exact amount of greenhouse gas pollution an activity generates.

Calculate Your Carbon Footprint HERE

Eliminate Your Environmental Impact: Where to Purchase Carbon Offsets

This article was written to provide consumers and business with the tools they need to evaluate carbon offsets for themselves. But if you need a place to start, you can check out one of our conservation partners, and learn more about the amazing carbon projects going on around the globe.

8 Billion Trees’ partners with these groups and have already vetted their legitimacy, but as always, we encourage third party research. Although this article can’t provide an exhaustive list of every possible offset provider, these are just a few that conduct our favorite environmental projects.

At the end of the day, carbon offsets are an important weapon in the fight to reduce carbon emissions and we urge everyone to do their part; no matter how big or small. Whether it’s a commitment to full sustainability or monitoring personal consumption patterns. Tiny steps in the right direction can make all the difference.