This is the second article in a series on carbon offsets.
Recently, I conducted a survey to better understand why more small businesses and individuals don’t purchase carbon offsets to achieve carbon neutrality. One concern expressed by respondents is that carbon offsets don’t really work to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide. Together, we’ll explore expert responses to that concern.
One pleasant surprise of the survey was how few (fewer that 6.8%) said they didn’t purchase carbon offsets because they believe climate change is not a threat and fewer still (just 4.3%) said climate change is threat but is not connected to human activity.
Among the nine options given for not purchasing carbon offsets, the next least selected (7.7%) after the climate skepticism noted above, was that “Carbon offsets do not reduce atmospheric carbon; carbon emissions should be reduced at scale via government policies that tax and/or restrict emissions.”
Similarly, 16.2% of respondents said, “Due to a lack of standards and regulation there is no way I can be sure my purchase of carbon offsets actually results in a corresponding reduction in carbon emissions.” This misapprehension is gravely wrong.
Read more about the survey here.
Still, the question of efficacy is a fair one. Lisa Song, a Pulitzer prize winner, wrote an expose of the ineffectiveness of carbon credits for ProPublica last year. In the piece, she quotes Princeton researcher Timothy Searchinger as saying carbon credits are “the worst possible idea—except for everything else.”
Scrutiny such as Song’s ProPublica article provides should improve the efficacy of carbon offsets over time. The market is still young, and we can hope and expect it to improve.
“Reducing atmospheric GHG emissions is actually exactly what carbon offsets do,” says Jennifer Weiss, vice president of communications and business outreach at Climate Action Reserve. “Offset programs provide financial incentives and technical expertise for projects to reduce, sequester or prevent the release of GHG emissions that would have occurred under business-as-usual scenarios.”
Marisa de Belloy, CEO, Cool Effect
Credit: Cool Effect
Marisa de Belloy, the CEO of Cool Effect, a crowdfunding site for carbon offset projects including some certified by Climate Action Reserve, says, “Carbon offsets can reduce current atmospheric carbon in the case of afforestation projects (where trees are planted), but other projects reduce emissions going into the atmosphere today and in the future. So, offsets are an important tool to reduce emissions overall.”
“There are in fact ways to confirm a carbon offset is legitimate, and is verifiably reducing carbon emissions,” de Belloy explains. “When reviewing projects, ensure the project has received verification from one of the world’s major carbon standards—the Gold Standard, the Verified Carbon Standard, Climate Action Reserve, American Carbon Registry, or the United Nations Clean Development Mechanism.”
“The robust voluntary and compliance offsets markets exist because regulatory-quality offset registries have established methodologies and program policies to ensure that people can be confident carbon offsets actually result in a corresponding reduction in carbon emissions,” Weiss says. “High quality standards for carbon offset projects are developed through a transparent, multi-stakeholder process involving scientific research, public comments and responses to public comments. All projects are required to undergo independent third-party verification by an accredited verification body.”
De Belloy further explains that it is important for your purchase to drive incremental carbon reductions. It is easy to imagine a situation where lots of carbon reduction has been done but that more money to the project won’t continue the drive reductions at the same rate.
“Look for confirmation that a carbon credit is additional, by asking for due diligence documents and transparency in pricing. The concept of additionality means that to qualify as a genuine carbon offset, the reductions achieved by a project need to be ‘additional’ to what would have happened if the project had not been carried out.”
Nonprofits like de Belloy’s Cool Effect can help consumers and small business owners find projects that have verified and certified carbon offset projects with proven additionality. It is notable that virtually all the projects listed on Cool Effect have other positive social impacts in addition to carbon reduction.
“Carbon offsets really can reduce emissions,” reiterates Ben Block, CEO of GozAround Green, a service that facilitates carbon offset purchases with corporate sponsors who provide rewards for purchasing carbon offsets. “Even if your personal emissions haven’t changed, another emission source is being reduced in proportion, or a carbon reduction mechanism such as tree planting is expanded. One way or another, there is less carbon in the atmosphere by your offsets.”
Almost everyone has done something consciously to reduce their carbon emissions. With the easy things done, it becomes more difficult or expensive to do more. Carbon offsets are an affordable way for most small businesses and households to become carbon neutral. A typical American household can offset a month’s carbon emissions for under $20 on CoolEffect.org.
Block summarizes the response of the experts well, saying, “Given the low cost and high potential to make a difference, it’s worth taking the chance.”