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Should You Buy Carbon Offsets?

A practical and philosophical guide to neutralizing your carbon footprint.

If you want to go carbon neutral, you could do what Daniel Suelo did. In 2000, Suelo moved into the caves in Arches National Park, where he forages for food, buys nothing, and doesn’t own a car. He’s also sworn off heating and cooling devices.

You don’t have to go quite that far, though, to live a carbon-neutral life. (Nor should you—Suelo’s lifestyle raises some serious legal and environmental issues.) Start by reducing your emissions. Then, after you’ve done all you can to shrink your personal carbon footprint, it’s time to consider buying offsets.

You’ve almost certainly been given the opportunity to buy carbon offsets. Some airline websites, for example, offer the option to buy them from third-party sellers to counterbalance the considerable carbon pollution associated with flying. Should you buy them? Yes, but selectively. Low-quality carbon offsets were once common, so you first have to do some legwork to ensure authenticity.

Cameron Strathdee/Getty

To illustrate the difference between a quality carbon offset and a scam, consider a hypothetical example: The offset seller will give your money to a landowner in the Amazon who promises to leave his trees standing to maximize carbon sequestration.

The offset seller should make several guarantees in this transaction. First, that the offsets are real—that there’s an actual landowner who owns actual land with actual trees. This guarantee shouldn’t be necessary, but unfortunately there have been cases of groups collecting money for offset projects that don’t yet exist. Relatedly, the offset should be verified and enforceable—a third party should have laid eyes on the trees, and there must be a mechanism for penalizing the landowner if he doesn’t follow through. The offset should also be permanent. If the guy who gets your money can burn his trees to the ground six months later, your money will have been wasted.

Finally, the offset must be additional. This is the trickiest issue with carbon offsets. What if the Amazonian landowner never had any intention of clear-cutting his land in the first place? Then your purchase would be a gift rather than an offset. The landowner would be taking advantage of the offset system to collect a windfall for doing exactly what he would have done anyway. Your transaction would have no effect on the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.

A corollary to “additionality”—yes, carbon offset wonks use that word—is leakage. Let’s say your money prevented the Amazonian landowner from selling his plot to a logging company. That’s great, but what if the logging company simply bought the plot next door? That’s leakage. Your offset dollars shifted deforestation rather than preventing it.

Both individuals and corporations buy carbon offsets. Big companies have the resources to research the legitimacy of an offset themselves. Google, for example, employs people to investigate the quality of the company’s carbon offset outlays. You probably don’t have the time or money to fly to Ecuador and poke around a forested plot, to inspect a methane capture system, or to visit an urban forestry project. Fortunately, a quality assurance system has developed to verify the quality of your offsets. At the top level are standard-setting groups, such as the Climate Action Reserve, which establish rules and protocols for offset projects. Below them are retail certification programs, like Green-e Climate, which help individuals identify reliable carbon offset sellers.

The best carbon offset programs are transparent. If you have concerns, you should contact the seller to find out exactly what you’re buying. Many will allow you to direct your money to specific projects or away from others. You may, for example, prefer not to invest in a factory farm, even if the money is earmarked for methane capture. Or you may wish to look for programs that offer benefits beyond carbon reduction, such as employment in low-income areas or improvements in public health.

In addition to these practical issues, you should be aware of a larger philosophical argument about carbon offsets. While proponents view high-quality offsets as a way to support carbon-fighting projects, critics say they are merely a license to pollute. When you buy an offset, you are paying someone to cut her emissions so you don’t have to.

That’s why your first move should always be to reduce your own emissions. Drive fewer miles, fly less, don’t overheat or over-cool your home. But before you resign yourself to moving to a cave, know that high-quality carbon offsets are available to eliminate the last traces of your carbon footprint.

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