What is Carbon Offsetting and Does it Work?

August 23, 2021

Category: Sustainability

When the coronavirus pandemic shut down much of human activity in 2020, global emissions of carbon dioxide fell by 6.4%. Still, this decrease was much less than what scientists had expected and by the end of the year, the numbers began to grow again. Today, we look at carbon offsetting schemes and their potential to reduce the impact of human-produced greenhouse gasses on the environment.

Although a small amount of carbon dioxide, or CO2, is a necessary component of the Earth’s atmosphere, its increased levels are the biggest climate change culprit. Unfortunately, nearly every human activity is associated with CO2 production​​—and none more than those reliant on fossil fuels, including generating electricity, transportation and manufacturing. While an average person breathes out some 250 lbs of CO2 each year, a single flight from New York to London is responsible for nearly six times this amount. It all adds up at a staggering rate; the average American has a carbon footprint of roughly 23.5 tons per year.  

Carbon offsetting and carbon neutrality

To reduce the environmental impact of daily life, or their most CO2-heavy activities such as travel or electricity consumption, more and more people are looking into offsetting schemes which can be “any activity that compensates for the emission of carbon dioxide (CO2) or other greenhouse gases […] by providing for an emission reduction elsewhere.” With the help of certified projects and initiatives, individuals and organizations can purchase carbon credits, each one equivalent to one ton of the greenhouse gas absorbed or reduced through investments in renewable energy, emissions trading or tree planting.

However, no amount of carbon offsetting projects can absorb all of the human-produced greenhouse gasses. Achieving carbon neutrality, or emitting only as much CO2 as can be safely absorbed by the atmosphere, is possible only if offsetting goes hand in hand with the reduction of our carbon footprint. Buying credits to ease our conscience and forget about the problem would be a dead end. Luckily, most experts agree that beyond straightforward balancing out, offsetting schemes actually help raise awareness of climate change and are very effective—as long as they actually do what they claim to do.

Choosing the right projects 

Finding the most suitable carbon offsetting scheme is largely down to personal preference. Projects that were previously criticized for lacking impact were usually reliant on tree planting, and have since shifted to more viable methods of offsetting such as capturing methane in landfill, investing in solar and wind energy, or even distributing modern cooking stoves in developing countries.

Based on subscriptions or one-off purchases, there are various options available to individuals and businesses alike. Researching a scheme’s portfolio of projects—usually readily available on the Internet—ensures that your money goes to support a program that you care about. For example, with the non-profit organization myclimate, 13 USD offsets the impact of driving 1000 miles by investing in incentivizing big businesses to lower their emissions, while climate consultancy EcoAct invests in local conservation projects ranging from saving the Amazonian rainforest to planting native American hardwoods in Minnesota.

Tagged: Eco-Friendly