The 4 Little Known Facts to Know Before Buying Carbon Offset

By Marvin Casipe | Updated on September 2, 2021

Despite the restrictions on many activities due to the pandemic, our carbon footprints still exist. Though with these minimal activities, nature got a quick chance to revive and breathe again for a short period of time.

However, with resuming and going back to normal life, the environmental distress is back. Even with our daily activities, the food we eat, things we buy, and the commute we use, everything— in one way or another — adds up into your carbon footprint.

Luckily, buying carbon offsets allows you to mitigate the environmental impacts of your life that you cannot change or avoid.

Two basic things can help us make a difference:

  • Our choices in our lifestyle
  • Carbon offsetting for emissions which we cannot avoid

An image of three men wearing 8 Billion Trees shirts raking leaves used for composting in Brazil, with an 8 Billion Trees watermark.

What Is a Carbon Offset?

Carbon offsetting usually refers to a reduction in greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions. Alternatively, it can be a compensatory action for emissions that occur elsewhere by means of an increase in carbon storage (e.g., carbon sequestration by tree planting or through land restoration).4

There is another term similar to carbon offset- carbon offset credit. A carbon offset credit, or simply offset credit, is an instrument certified by governments or certification bodies, a certified transferable instrument that can be purchased and retired.4

So broadly, carbon offsets are a way to offset your carbon footprint.

Non-profit organizations, universities, businesses, companies, and any individual can offset their emissions through voluntary carbon marketplaces (VCMs), which fall outside a regulatory regime, unlike compliance markets.4

That’s right! They are not regulated by a central authority, but there are still protocols in place to improve the quality and credibility of these markets. These are mainly built on existing rules and procedures from compliance markets.

Many carbon offset programs have been criticized for being scams, due to the lack of stricter rules or governance in the VCM.

However, by being aware of the programs and projects being offered for carbon offsetting, you can certainly avoid being scammed, by keeping these four most important facts in mind:

1. Identifying a Project as Genuine

Sellers can try their best to prove anything as real, so be sure that the project is real and exists.

Many programs offer projects that are based on future hypothetical, or present hypothetical, situations. It is always necessary to check and verify the objective, and current scenario of the project.

There are some projects that are offered by some providers that are only verified or certified on paper but do not implement these actions in practice.

On the other hand, there are some projects or providers that may not have the certification label, but are verified through other means such as government agreements.

It is always advisable to cross-check any project, comparing their claims to their actions.

How to Know?

  • Make sure a person/group/organization running the project actually exists, both on paper and on the ground
  • Check through a third party, via satellite imaging, or in person, that the project exists on the ground
  • Invest some time to understand how the project works… does it really compensate for emissions?
  • It is always a good option to buy offsets from the genuine project operators directly, rather than a vendor or sellers
  • Check the website for the disclosure of standards they use to produce offsets

Trust your gut feelings. The genuine projects should show all the relevant information you are looking for on their website.

2. Looking for Transparency in Carbon Offsets

One of the most important things while buying offset is transparency. A good carbon offset should be verified, enforceable and permanent. It should follow global benchmark standards for GHG reductions and removals.

Making sure that emissions reductions or removals a program proposes are real is fundamental, and there are different standards to verify if the carbon offsets meet the necessary quality criteria.

One of them is the Gold Standard Certification, which, besides verifying that carbon offsets make measurable and genuine contributions to combating climate change, improves offsetting programs by aligning them to the UN Millennium Development Goals.5

For forestry carbon offsets, it is important to make sure the offset providers monitors tree growing instead of solely focusing on tree planting. If companies do not monitor the areas where trees are planted, forestry projects run the risk of collapsing, further contributing to climate change instead of mitigating it.

Moreover, it is important to know that in the forestry sphere, many carbon offset companies do not implement or manage tree-planting efforts themselves, which severely hampers transparency.

How to Know?

  • Ask questions like… How are projects selected? What projects are supported? What are the results expected?
  • Are results measurable? How long does each project receive support? What criteria is followed for designing the projects?
  • Check for the registries with publicly available information to uniquely identify offset projects
  • Are there serial numbers generated for the offset credits generated by each project?

A company that is good, is transparent. You should easily get the information that you’re looking for in the public domain of their website, or through direct communication via their contact page or social media.

An image of a sprouting tree seed under the sunshine in a nursery in Brazil, with 8 Billion Trees watermark.

3. Checking for Additionality in a Project

Additionality is a term in the carbon offset market to determine that the results of a project truly help to reduce GHG emissions.6

If the reduction would not have occurred in the absence of a project, and the project would truly help with GHG reductions, then it’s additional.

If the reductions would have happened anyway, or naturally, then they are not additional.6 For example, if a carbon offset project is claiming to conserve 1,000 acres of forest as a GHG reduction effort, but the forest was not at any risk of deforestation, the project has no additionality. This is because the forest would have been sequestering carbon dioxide anyway, regardless of the project.

Sometimes other revenue sources can run a project that does not actually need the offsetting revenue to operate. In this case, the project can be established on its own and is non-additional. Buying offsets from such projects is nothing but merely the fake satisfaction of offsetting CO2.

How to Know?

  • Do research, or ask the seller, if the project would stop emission reduction if it did not continue to receive carbon offset revenues? if the answer for this is yes, then the project can be considered additional.
  • Similarly, find out or determine whether the CO2 reduction would have happened anyway, regardless of the project. If the answer is yes, then this project does not have additionality.

For example, a renewable energy project that could only be implemented through the funds of carbon offsetting, can be considered as additional.

Establishing Efficiency and Co-Benefits in Carbon Offsets

There are many projects in the market which support many collateral benefits, such as additional environmental benefits or social benefits for the surrounding communities.

However, there are also some which produce collateral benefits, but are not efficient for carbon removal. Also, there are unfortunately many projects which seem beneficial superficially, but are actually harmful to nature or the community.

This duality can be seen most often in forestry carbon offsets, one of the most popular types of carbon offset.

An 8 Billion Trees graphic showing the annual potential of forestry projects in climate mitigation.

For example, trees planted in the forest to be cut down within a certain number of years, or planting trees in an ecosystem that previously did not have any (afforestation), are inefficient offset projects when compared to reforestation (planting trees in areas where they naturally grow) projects.

Planting a diverse array of native trees is much more beneficial than projects growing monoculture forests, as the latter is damaging to local biodiversity and more vulnerable to pests and diseases. A native, mixed planting project results in a healthy, balanced ecosystem, as well as other collateral benefits. Native species are usually better known among and more useful for local inhabitants. Like that – besides promoting social, cultural, and economic benefits – native trees have more chances of being protected in the long-run.1

Planting native species and collecting local seeds are crucial strategies to ensure that a forest actually survives, as well as to guarantee that the trees can take a natural place in and boost the health and resilience of the local ecosystem. If a non-native species were planted, it could easily die, or become invasive, and majorly disrupt the local ecosystem rather than aid it. If seeds are collected in areas that are far away and differ too much from the one where the trees are planted, these could be insufficiently adapted to the local ecosystem and offer less support to the local fauna.2

Native and mixed forests are healthy and balanced ecosystems that do much more than simply capturing carbon dioxide. They deliver various ecosystem services such as:3

  • Cleaning the air
  • Controlling erosion
  • Filtering water
  • Maintaining biodiversity.

They also provide:

  • Fuel
  • Fiber
  • Food
  • Shelter
  • Significant cultural, educational, and recreational values

It is also important to note where a carbon offset takes place. If it is put into place in an area with high biodiversity, such as the Amazon rainforest, it can have a positive impact on a larger number of species. Additionally, focusing on areas that have received the most devastation, or are most at-risk of being destroyed, then the positive impact becomes that much greater.

With Your Help, Carbon Offsets Can Help Save the Planet

In today’s world of the climate crisis and sixth mass extinction, it is important to remember that every bit of our action counts. It is always a good choice to offset for actions we can not avoid, in addition to cutting back on our impact wherever we can.

We should keep in mind that living on Earth is just like going to a shop with a sign that reads “if you break it, you buy it!” …You can pay for the loss with money, but the object remains destructed, of no use, just like once polluted, a planet’s natural destruction cannot be fully reversed even with offsetting.

Of course, correctly chosen carbon offsets still have the power to massively improve the quality of our atmosphere, as well as the ecosystem on land. Your mindful choices and thoughtful decisions make all the difference.

Read More About Carbon Offsets:


References

1Thomas, E., Jalonen, R., Gallo, L., Boshier, D., Loo, J. (2014). Introduction. In Bozzano, M., Jalonen, R., Thomas, E., Boshier, D., Gallo, L., Cavers, S., Bordács, S., Smith, P. & Loo, J. (Eds.) Genetic considerations in ecosystem restoration using native tree species. State of the World’s Forest Genetic Resources – Thematic Study. Rome, FAO and Bioversity International.

2Lamb, D. (2012). Forest restoration – the third big silvicultural challenge. J. Trop. Forest Sci., 24: 295–299.

3Forest ecosystem products and services. (n.d.). Retrieved August 23, 2021, from https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/our-natural-resources/forests-and-forestry/sustainable-forest-management/forest-ecosystem-products-services/13177

4What is a Carbon Offset? – Carbon Offset Guide. (n.d.). Retrieved August 25, 2021, from https://www.offsetguide.org/understanding-carbon-offsets/what-is-a-carbon-offset/

5THE 17 GOALS | Sustainable Development. (n.d.). Retrieved August 25, 2021, from https://sdgs.un.org/goals

6Additionality – Carbon Offset Guide. (n.d.). Retrieved August 25, 2021, from https://www.offsetguide.org/high-quality-offsets/additionality/