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Carbon Offsetting: Pros & Cons

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A “carbon offset” is an emission reduction credit from another organization’s project that results in less carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere than would otherwise occur, according to the David Suzuki Foundation. Individuals who attempt to take responsibility for their carbon footprint offset their carbon emissions by purchasing ‘clean’ or ‘green’ energy from another company. Carbon offsets can be purchased for any number of activities including travel, energy consumption, and daily automobile use. By supporting and investing in alternative energy sources, the theory is that personal carbon emissions are ‘offset’ through the purchase of cleaner energy. Far from an exact science, there are hundreds of companies offering everything from kelp beds to wind farms to tree planting as offsetting options.

Taking Responsibility

Carbon offsets encourage individuals to take personal responsibility for their carbon footprint and they increase capital investment for alternative energy source implementation. Offsets are generally seen as a positive step towards reducing carbon emissions even though many of the companies don’t have an accurate system that is able to deal with precise quantifiable carbon measurements due to ambiguity about calculating the exact amount of emissions created. For example, when calculating an airline trip to Hawaii, often carbon offsetting companies offer a flat emission calculation based on distance and average fuel used by an airplane as opposed to factoring time of flight, capacity of flight, passenger weight and luggage amount.

An Excuse To Pollute?

Carbon offsets should not be used as an excuse to pollute. For example, an individual may make 20 business trips a year and believe that carbon offsetting somehow negates the emissions created during the travel. Although theoretically this is correct, what is problematic to some environmentalists is that offsetting can be utilized as a justification to have an excessively carbon intensive lifestyle. Charlie Kronick, head of Greenpeace's climate and energy campaign UK, said in a statement, ‘The scientists warn we need to slash our carbon emissions, but there is a risk that the fashion for off-setting could actually encourage people to take flights and unnecessary journeys. The truth is, once you've put a ton of CO2 into the atmosphere there's nothing offsetting can do to stop it changing our climate.’

Personal Versus Government Responsibility

Other commonly leveled arguments against carbon offsetting include the premise that it exploits individuals’ guilt over climate change and it overemphasizes the individual’s reasonability for climate change over and above governmental and industry responsibility. Both of these theories have validity but individual responsibility for climate change is also an important part of the green movement. Each individual in the world, particularly in the top polluting countries, has an obligation to reduce their carbon footprint as much as possible. This is particularly important in countries like Canada, USA and Saudi Arabia, where federal governments are refusing to take climate change responsibility seriously. Carbon offsets should be seen for what they are; efforts to take some responsibility for personal carbon footprints and as a way to invest in alternative energies or technologies.

Gold Standard

Not all offsets are created equally. Some organizations and systems of offsetting are considered to be much more accurate than others. Planting trees is generally seen as less valuable than creating more wind and solar panel technologies. The David Suzuki Foundation explains that purchasing trees as an offset is problematic due to their impermanence and that this type of project does not address our dependence on fossil fuels. Planetair, a not for profit greenhouse gas emission reduction organization, explains that trees capture or sequester CO2 temporarily, they do not reduce the generation of emissions per se.

Currently the highest certification for voluntary carbon offsetting standards is the official recognition of Gold Standard. The Gold Standard is a Swiss based non-profit foundation that works to provide quality labels to carbon offsetting businesses and organizations. Gold Standard certified carbon-offsetting projects must adhere to the criteria of; using renewable energy or energy efficiency technologies and promote sustainable development.

Who Is Offsetting?

Even though there remains a wide range of carbon offsetting options, the lack of a precise science hasn’t stopped thousands of carbon offsetting companies from going into the offsetting business. Skeptical environmentalists still consider attempts to achieve personal or corporate carbon neutrality a craze that will eventually make way for a better system of carbon tabulation, but in the meantime many large companies and organizations are exploring carbon neutrality through offsetting options.

The Canadian Federation of Municipalities offsets with CarbonZero. Toshiba offers customers the chance to offset the carbon emissions from their new laptop for a couple of extra dollars upon purchase. During a six-month period in 2007-2008, Volkswagen offered new Volkswagen owners offsets for one year of driving with each new purchase. Two British banks have also become carbon neutral – HSBC and Barclay’s. Rock bands Coldplay and Pearl Jam have both released carbon neutral albums. Business Week Magazine reported that voluntary offsetting ‘more than doubled in size between 2005 and 2006, to an estimated $54.9 million’.

Resources

The Climate Group: http://www.theclimategroup.org/
The David Suzuki Foundation: http://www.davidsuzuki.org/
Greenpeace International: http://www.greenpeace.org/
Friends of the Earth: http://www.foei.org/index.php
Climate Change Network: http://www.climnet.org/
Carbon Neutral Company: http://www.carbonneutral.com/
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: http://www.ipcc.ch/

Carbon Offset Companies

The Carbon Fund: http://www.carbonfund.org/
Carbon Planet: http://www.carbonplanet.com/
Planetair: http://planetair.ca/
The Climate Protection Partnership: http://www.myclimate.org/
Climate Friendly: https://climatefriendly.com/
Solar Electric Light Fund: http://www.self.org/
Native Energy: http://www.nativeenergy.com/
Tree Canada: http://www.treecanada.ca/
Gold Standard: http://www.cdmgoldstandard.org/