Carbon Offsets Don’t Work? Learn About Verified Climate Solutions (and More Explained)

By Vivian Duncan | Updated on September 14, 2021

You might be thinking, “I thought your organization and mission is to plant trees. What do you mean Carbon offsets don’t work?” Because 8 Billion Trees is committed to unbiased transparency, we explore all the reasons some people don’t believe that offsets are working to help the environmental crisis. In fact, it’s sad to admit that some carbon offset projects are doing more harm than good… but thankfully others are actually changing the world.

What Are Carbon Offsets & How Do Credits Work?

Carbon footprint tree planting “schemes” are a problem, but real programs involve investments in projects that fight climate change. Generally speaking, there are two types of carbon offsets you can purchase and two different markets that provide them, emission reduction and sequestration.

Types of Carbon Offsets

Carbon offsets are available for projects that either reduce carbon emissions or alternatively take carbon out of the atmosphere (sequestration).

  • Emission Reduction: An example of a project that reduces carbon emissions might be a solar field, providing an alternate, cleaner energy source than fossil fuels.
  • Sequestration: An example of a project that sequesters carbon might be a forestry project to plant trees because trees naturally pull and store carbon out of the atmosphere.

Types of Carbon Credit Markets

A carbon offset is usually represented by a certificate or credit that can then be used to balance out greenhouse gas emissions. There are two carbon credit markets, the regulatory market, and the voluntary market.

  • Regulatory Market: The regulatory market applies primarily to companies that must abide by regulatory emissions standards (or laws) for greenhouse gases. These companies are given a ceiling for their carbon emissions and must remain under that ceiling to stay within the law. If they do not stay under the ceiling, they can buy carbon credits—funding for green projects. Buying carbon credits offsets their emissions bringing them back within the proper limits.
  • Voluntary Market: The voluntary market for carbon offsets is outside the regulatory market, allowing companies and individuals to purchase offsets to bring down their carbon footprint, voluntarily.

Don’t Fall Victim to a Climate Change Scam

The Paris Climate agreement set a goal to keep global temperatures from increasing past 1.5° C. As part of this goal, countries across the globe agreed to a net zero carbon footprint by 2050. Possible strategies to get to net-zero include technological innovations, carbon taxes, and lifestyle changes. Other ideas include establishing incentives around carbon offsetting and funding green projects to offset emissions offenses to support net-zero goals.

This last strategy is not without its pitfalls, however. As with anything that has many moving parts there are loopholes and inefficiencies in the carbon credit market that provide the opportunity for bad actors and gross mismanagement. So, when buying CO2 offsets, the message is buyer beware.

8 Billion Trees Visual Infographic of the Island of Madagascar(Island in Indian Ocean) showing the devastating effects of deforestation as only 10% of the original forests remain, highlighted in green

Not All Carbon Offsets Are Equal – What Makes a High Quality Carbon Offset?

When shopping for offsets, you need to do your homework. Despite your best intentions, a bad offset program (one that doesn’t work) could be harming the environment, if you don’t put your money into reputable projects. The following are some of the things to be on the lookout when considering your carbon offset options:

Leakage

Leakage happens when an offset project may be working in a vacuum and doesn’t consider its impact holistically. While greenhouse gases may be lowered because of the project, the project itself directly influences greenhouse gas emission elsewhere in the system that counteracts the good it’s doing.

EXAMPLE: Funding afforestation (giving money to landowners for forest preservation). Afforestation is a good thing, but if it causes deforestation in another area of the country to fulfill the market demand for wood, and that area otherwise would not have been touched, your project is not fulfilling its promise.

Additionality

Additionality should be your requirement for any offset credit purchase. Additionality means that the project will do additional good—the project goes beyond the status quo, beyond any governmental requirements, and beyond the most likely greenhouse gas scenario, if no funding was provided.

EXAMPLE: Funding afforestation in a place where the land is not likely to be forested does not have additionality. Funding afforestation in an area where land is otherwise being clear-cut for agriculture likely has additionality. Likewise, if the forestry offset also funds habitat rehabilitation, and wildlife restoration, that qualifies.

Permanence

When you invest in a offset project will the project be viable a year from now? Two years from now? How long? It’s important to know how long will your project be safeguarded and what mechanisms are in place to ensure that happens.

EXAMPLE: Afforestation is non-permanent if trees meant to be preserved by forestry carbon credits are harvested later. Clear ownership of land, agreements and regulations are important to safeguard against this. In Brazil, afforestation went awry, for instance, because offset project trees were cut for American and European businesses instead.

Look for projects that don’t have leakage ,and insist on additionality and permanence. For more information on leakage, additionality, and permanence, the Overseas Development Institute’s info sheet on Additionality, Non-Permanence and Leakage is a helpful resource.

Certifications for High-Quality Carbon Offsets

The voluntary carbon market has a number of certifications that can help you guard against poor carbon-offset investments. Examples of these include the Gold Standard and the Verified Carbon Standard, whose missions are to ensure that the projects you invest in are good ones.

Carbon Footprint: Reduce Vs Offset

The world of carbon offsetting is complicated. Measuring additionality, leakage and permanence is a soft art because there’s no way to establish standards. Add to the mix the fact that many offset projects happen in countries that aren’t big contributors to the greenhouse gas problem in the first place. Asking these nations to cut the economic benefits of carbon-intensive activities so that the western world can continue its environmentally unfriendly ways is a moral dilemma at best.

Creating a world where Carbon negative countries is the norm is aspirational. Today, Bhutan is the only country that can make such a claim.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the UK produces 1% of the world’s carbon emissions where the US produces 15% and China is at a whopping 28%. Carbon offsetting in the UK, the US, and China (along with other strategies) can help, but these three countries have a long way to go to reach net-zero emissions, especially China.

According to the Grist, “Supporters of offsets say they are only an acceptable tool once companies have done everything they can to pollute less, such as tightening up manufacturing processes, cutting down on office heating, or making delivery trucks run on cleaner fuels.”

Being a Responsible Global Citizen for Climate Doesn’t Mean Kicking the Can Down the Road

Implications of the relative climate burden on the global ‘haves and have nots’ makes it important for wealthy countries to do their part on every level to curb greenhouse gases. Yes, carbon offsets are a necessary tool, but behavior counts, too. Here are the things to consider and the order to think about them when you are looking to reduce emissions:

  1. Understand & Measure your carbon footprint.
  2. Reduce & Offset your emissions.
  3. Share & Inspire your journey with others.

In other words, seek first to understand your own impact. Reduce it as much as possible. Then, offset what you can’t reduce. Spread the love, so that together we bend the global warming trajectory back in the right direction.

Find Out What Your Personal Carbon Offset Is Today!

What about you? Groups working on CO2 reduction is one thing, but it’s time to get personal. Before you consider buying and selling carbon credits, start by finding out which of your activities generate the most emissions, and work to cut back there. Calculate your current carbon emission with an ecological footprint calculator.

Beyond that, look for reputable offset options to go carbon zero, or better yet be Bhutan and go carbon negative, too.

How Do I Tell Which Carbon Offset Provider Is the Best?

Now that you know what your footprint is, it’s time to take the next step and explore the world of the best offset providers. Make sure you do your research. Check out reputable offset guides as a start and then take a look at the best carbon offset programs to deepen your understanding.

In the world of carbon offsets, it pays to do your homework. To be sure, there are scams, mismanagement, and unintended global influences. Still, there are solid offset programs out there doing wonderful work to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And remember, the world of carbon offsets is evolving as more is learned and understood. Regulations and standards are getting better. Continuous improvement in offsets is happening, well…continuously.

So, don’t let the pitfalls scare you. Instead, arm yourself with the knowledge to make smart decisions. Because of the climate crisis, we all need to be working toward a solution.

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