This is the first article in a series.
Over the past few years, I’ve written about carbon offsets several times. I’m excited about their potential to help reverse climate change with a market approach that should be acceptable to everyone across the political spectrum. But no one seems to be listening.
After writing an article, I often hear from people who appreciate it. Not so when I write about carbon credits. Nothing. Nada. Silence.
This has left me a bit frustrated.
In order to better understand the silence, I surveyed 147 people to find out why people aren’t buying carbon offsets. The first question in the survey was “Have you ever purchased carbon offsets for your home or small business to reduce your carbon footprint?”
Of those surveyed, 28 people or 19.3% of those surveyed, said that they had purchased carbon offsets. Even at that level the number surprised me as being a bit high based on the lack of response to my articles.
The next question on the survey for those who said they had purchased carbon offsets was “How and where did you buy your carbon offsets?” Next, I asked “Why did you buy carbon offsets?”
These answers to these questions revealed something that didn’t surprise me much but explained a lot. Many people don’t know what carbon credits are or how they work even after I defined them as follows:
“A carbon offset, sometimes called a carbon credit, refers to paying someone else to reduce their carbon emissions or increase their carbon sequestration (as in by planting trees) in order to offset your own carbon emissions. In many situations, it is more affordable to buy carbon offsets than to reduce your carbon emissions.”
Even with that guide, people described actions that don’t line up with buying carbon credits. For instance, one described planting a tree. Certainly, planting a tree is a good thing to do to reverse climate change but it is not the same thing as buying a carbon credit. Another described having their electric utility install a timer.
One respondent said he bought his offset “online” because “I needed it in my home.” Since a carbon offset isn’t something you use in your home, it seems clear he didn’t buy one and didn’t know what one was. Another said, she “wanted to try the product” indicating again a lack of understanding.
One of my favorite responses was a respondent who said he “bought it online on Amazon” because it was “suggested by a friend.” As far as I could find, you can’t buy carbon offsets on Amazon.com. Another respondent said he bought one an Amazon because “my brother wanted it.”
More thoughtfully, another responded that he “bought solar panels” to “be more green.” This is a great example of how I’ve been missing the mark with my reporting. Even someone willing and able to invest in solar panels, an investment that could easily reach into the tens of thousands of dollars, didn’t really understand what a carbon offset is.
And that provides a great segue to trying to explain in clearer detail what a carbon offset is.
The electricity you buy likely comes from a portfolio of sources, including most of these: coal, natural gas, nuclear, hydro, wind and solar. Let’s say you can’t afford to install solar panels right now or perhaps your roof is shaded by trees (it makes little sense to cut down trees to install solar panels). You might still want to be carbon neutral.
While it would be difficult for me to estimate exactly how much carbon you generate in your home or small business each month, it could easily be one metric ton (the standard unit of measuring for carbon)—ignoring your cars, travel and food for purposes of this discussion. (There are online carbon footprint calculators that can easily help you calculate your carbon footprint.) Rather than buy solar panels you could buy a one-ton carbon offset each month. The cost could be as little as $3.30 on a crowdfunding website called CoolEffect.org I’ve written about before.
For virtually all of us, our opportunities to directly reduce our carbon footprint ranges from money-saving to expensive, from easy and painless to difficult and/or painful. So, on your path to becoming carbon neutral, you may find it easier—at least for a time—to buy offsets rather than go to the expense and trouble of directly reducing your footprint.
In my survey, I did find some people who clearly knew what carbon offsets were and had purchased them.
Ben Block, founder of GozAround Green, an Alberta-based corporate social responsibility program app that is intended to encourage consumers to buy carbon offsets by receiving corporate incentives to do so. For example, a person spends $20 on carbon offsets on the site and might receive coupons from corporations worth $20 in savings, making them effectively free.
Block responded to the survey saying he’d used his own site to purchase carbon offsets. A few noted that they bought carbon offsets when booking airline tickets directly through the airline. One confessed, “Honestly it was my employer’s money and I thought I would look good.”
A few respondents used Terrapass to buy their carbon credits. Two used BP (though I was unable to find a link to do the same). One used Cool Effect, the crowdfunding site I mentioned above.
The survey respondents were found through social media postings and from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service. The latter respondents were paid $0.25 each.
Of the respondents, 53.7% were male, 45.6% female and one chose “prefer not to say.” Respondents represented a wide age range, with 30.6% being 18-29, 36.7% 30-39, 17.7% 40-49, 8.8% 50-59, 5.4% 60-69 and 1 respondent over 70.
Most, 58.3% said they are currently single, 39.6% report being married and 2.1% prefer not to say.
Democrats, 43.8%, were somewhat more likely to respond to the survey than Republicans, 25.3%. Others made up 23.3% of respondents and 7.5% prefer not to say.
Of all the respondents, 72.2% chose “Caucasian” as their ethnicity. Seven other ethnicities were reported.
The respondents have a range of education. Two reported not finishing high school, 10.2% reported having a high school diploma, 25.2% have some college, 41.5% have finished college, 19.7% have a master’s or professional degree and three have doctoral degrees.
Most responses were from the U.S., with just seven outside the U.S., including three from India, one each from the UK and Canada and two not responding to the question.
Only 13 people, representing less than 10% of the respondents indicated that they didn’t buy carbon offsets because “climate change is not a threat” or “climate change may be a threat, but human carbon emissions do not significantly influence global warming.” This suggests the population of climate skeptics may be smaller than elsewhere reported.
The most hopeful observation from my survey: 75% of respondents said they would or might be more likely to buy carbon offsets if they could easily purchase enough to be carbon neutral for just $20 per month.