Carbon Offsets: Theory

Yeah, finally- I fly out in four days  (:D!).

Ahem.  Today, theories of offsetting carbon- what counts?  Do you have to buy ‘offsets’ specifically? Why not just donate to environmental projects and call it a day?  How does one decide how much to give?  What do you mean by ‘offset’ anyway?

Think it might help to answer my last question first.  A carbon offset is a financial transaction where you pay some person money to do something that will cancel out the “extra” carbon you’re creating by doing what it is you want to do.  So the total amount of greenhouse gases released in the world doesn’t go up at all when you do that thing you want to do.  It only really works, though, if by paying someone an offset, you reduce ghg emissions that wouldn’t have been reduced without that payment.  Your payment should spur new emissions reductions.  Wikipedia has some more information here.

So, ok, in order to really offset emissions, you have to figure out how much you’re emitting by doing a thing, then you have to find someone to pay some money to, to remove that amount of emissions from the earth.  Plenty of companies will take your money for this, and there are plenty of projects out there that claim to offset your emissions based on donations.  But they don’t all actually work.  Business Week enumerated some examples of shady deals in 2007.  There are third-party verifications of offsets out there, but they’re not always accurate- even the Kyoto Protocol’s standards, CDMs, seem to have funded some sketchy projects in hindsight.  If you pick a project or just pay an offset broker, do your homework.  That’s why they invented the internet.  Double check everything.

For what it’s worth, No Impact Man, who’s wrestled with this much longer than I have, likes E+Co offsetting projects.

Right, so, it’s simple to find someone who will tell you how much money to give them to maybe, possibly, make your carbon go away.   It’s slightly harder to double-check them.  But that definition of “offset” is clearly too easy, and maybe you weren’t bored by this post yet.   Let us mull other things.

When I first blogged my offsetting intentions, intrepid commenter bullmooser suggested I look into ways to fund projects that would not just offset ghg emissions, but look to find ways to make flying more sustainable in the first place.  Fund research for electric planes or magic baggies to put over engines to capture the emssions or something.  I really like that idea, but it’s certainly harder to verify that your contribution did the equivalent of ‘offsetting’ that way, especially since it will take at least years for the technologies to come to fruition.

And what if you just used the money to start a vegetable garden instead, and home-farmed your way to lower emissions?  Again, less third-party checking on that, but it would help out, and make your life more sustainable in more ways than just emissions.  You’re going to have to grow a lot of tomatoes before it starts technically canceling out a flight, though.  Plus, just like brokered offsets don’t count unless the payment has specifically triggered greater ghg reductions, for personal offsetting, you’d want to start a new ‘project’ in response to emissions-heavy plans you’ve made.  My personal offsetting would be going vegetarian for a bit, then.

With a personal offsetting project like one of those, the necessary lifestyle changes force one to directly acknowledge the consequences of an emissions-filled life.  It seems more real, and respectable.  Like doing your own laundry instead of paying someone to do it for you (even though the people you pay make it smell so nice and always get it cleaner).

I’m gonna go with a mix of easy and verifiable offsets, and personal offsetting projects.  That works best for me.  If you find a mix that works for you, I’d be interested to hear it.  I’ll put up another post about whatever offset I do end up buying later.

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4 Responses to “Carbon Offsets: Theory”


  1. 1 Kenneth Moore July 7, 2009 at 11:37 am

    I’m a fan of doing for yourself–if you want to fly, stop eating meat for a few months. That sounds like a great trade-off. Paying someone for offsets just seems like paying the mother of your bastard to be quiet. “Just keep your mouth shut, wench! I paid you good money not to bring Global Warming around here!”

    Heh, that summons a wonderful mental image to me. Really, we all have created illegitimate greenhouse gas children, and we all pay to shut the mom up. I do it not by buying offsets, but by choosing to pay more for local, organic food and/or sustainably produced consumer items (clothing, soap, etc). I don’t think it nearly offsets the energy I use at work or the travel I do, but my emmissions are still less than they used to be (according to online quizzes), and getting smaller. That makes me happy.

  2. 2 Jaynee July 10, 2009 at 11:12 am

    Oh! Leaving so soon! I was hoping my new and spiffy camera would come back from vacation before you left. I was intending to offer that it go on vacation with you, but, alas, the timing didn’t work out! Have a fabulous fabulous time (as I know you will) and come home refreshed, inspired, and SAFELY!

    Hugs!

  3. 3 virescent July 28, 2009 at 12:17 am

    Jaynee- thanks for the offer, but I managed (a friend managed) to find my good camera before I left, so I was well-outfitted!

    KM- You know, as soon as I posted this I thought of another reason to use ‘official’ offsetting methods, and that is to tie carbon more directly into the economy. You’re doing that too, by purchasing sustainable items, voting with dollars, etc., but I think that if I want the world to respect the full cost of carbon emissions, I should start paying for them sooner rather than later in some formal, declarative manner. I feel it would help legitimize the idea of carbon being costly to begin with, which I think is a crucial step to getting businesses and industries to change their habits. But of course I didn’t think of that before the post, just a couple days after, and the concept is growing on me. I agree that personal efforts are some of the most basically important- be the change- but for me, finding an offset is a crucial part of prompting change elsewhere.


  1. 1 On Links « Eco-City Alexandria Blog Trackback on September 29, 2009 at 7:01 pm

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