Carbon offsets are a hotly debated topic: Do they work? Are they a “cop-out” for actually reducing emissions? How can you avoid offset scams? As with anything in this space, there is rarely a black or white answer — context and nuance are crucial.
That is what this post will aim to do: establish what carbon offsets are (and perhaps more importantly) what they are not, dive into the risks of offsetting, and explore how to find reputable offsets.
For the purpose of this post, I will focus on what carbon offsets can do on an individual level. While some of this also translates to corporate or organizational-level carbon offsetting, these types of carbon offset programs typically have additional considerations.
[This post was proudly made in partnership with SimpliZero. As always, all research and opinions are my own and I only partner with companies I have vetted and believe in.]
What are Carbon Offsets?
Carbon offsets are essentially investments in environmental projects that reduce CO2 or other greenhouse gases, like methane, elsewhere to well, “offset” an individual or company’s own carbon emissions.
These carbon offset projects focus on:
A, Reducing an equivalent amount of greenhouse gases somewhere else. Often these focus on renewable energy investments such as community solar projects or improvements in energy efficiency like more modern cooking stoves.
Or B, Capturing an equivalent amount of greenhouse gas emissions somewhere else. Some examples could be reforestation, a transition to regenerative agriculture, or a methane capture project.
The second approach to capture or sequester greenhouse gases is much more challenging to measure than the first option (especially if the project is focused on planting trees) but we’ll discuss this more later.
How Do You Quantify Carbon Offsets?
The measurement for carbon offsets is made in tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) and one “carbon credit” is usually equal to one tonne of CO2e.
Note that “tonne” is not interchangeable with “ton”. A tonne is a metric measurement that equals 1,000 kilograms while a ton is an imperial measurement, which is equivalent to about 2,204 pounds. (A ton is 2,000 pounds.) So, in the U.S. a “tonne” may often be referred to as a “metric ton” to make the distinction.
Why Offset Carbon?
The U.S. emits 14.95 tonnes of CO2 per capita (per person) and Canada is not far behind with 14.91 tonnes of CO2 per capita, according to the World Economic Forum.
The richest 10% in the world (those making over $38,000 USD per year) emit 52% of global emissions while the poorest 50% account for just 7% of emissions, according to Oxfam. And yet, the world’s poorest countries are hit hardest by the effects of the climate crisis.
Another analysis to consider: The Global North is responsible for 92% of excess emissions and the United States alone accounts for 40% of excess emissions. And yet, the climate crisis is impacting the Global South (who account for just 8% of excess emissions) the worst.
In other words, there are people with “carbon privilege” (i.e. those emitting large amounts of CO2 without facing the worst of its effects).
And people without that carbon privilege (i.e. those living in the world’s poorest areas in the world that contribute little to global warming but often face the worst consequences and who are least prepared to mitigate or recover from its impacts).
This is not meant to shame anyone — corporations and governments are really to blame, after all — but to simply lay out the harsh realities of carbon inequity.
The point is that if we’re living in some of these high-emitting countries, it is essential that we push for systems-level changes from governments and large corporations.
We can also, if we are able to, push for change by living a mindful lifestyle that reduces the demand for carbon-intensive products and supports better systems. This can mean things like growing your own food and supporting local organic farmers, buying less and shopping secondhand, et cetera.
The reality is, though, that there are limitations in reductions that do exist on an individual level because:
A) eco-friendly, let alone emissions-free, options for everything we use are simply not available in today’s world due to a whole host of factors — if you need to fly to see your family in another country for instance, there are not zero-emissions planes even available to take!
B) even if a person living in the U.S. has a nearly zero waste lifestyle, eats only locally-sourced organic foods, and bikes to work, they will still emit or contribute to emitting a certain level of greenhouse gas emissions.
Everyone living in the U.S. (and elsewhere) will still utilize infrastructure, roads, school buildings, medical centers among a vast array of other resources that emitted and continue to emit large amounts of carbon dioxide.
While the carbon footprints of individuals vary widely based on an individual’s income, location, and lifestyle choices, “there is a certain floor below which the individual carbon footprint of a person in the U.S. will not drop”, as MIT professor Timothy Gutowski put it in a report on the topic.
What Carbon Offsets Can Do
Mindful carbon offsetting — when used in combination with other actions like habitual lifestyle changes and climate activism — can be one tool in our toolbox to help us live more sustainably and push for sustainable changes in our world.
Carbon offsetting can help compensate for emissions that are unavoidable or extremely difficult to avoid within our current systems.
It’s one way that those with a financial privilege to do so can support a healthier, more balanced planet.
What Carbon Offsets Cannot Do
Understanding what carbon offsets are not is just as important as understanding what carbon offsets are.
Carbon offsets are not a replacement for emissions reductions.
Purchasing carbon offsets alone is not enough and is most effective when used in combination with other actions.
The priority should be to reduce excessive and avoidable emissions in the first place to the extent possible and then carbon offsets can be used to compensate for any remaining emissions. Some sources will say that carbon offsets “cancel out” emissions, but I find that compensate is a better term for understanding what offsets do.
Individual carbon offsets are also not a substitute for pushing for system change.
Carbon offsets do not take away from the fact that the climate crisis requires an all-hands-on-deck approach. But doing one action — especially one as simple as carbon offsets — doesn’t mean we’re not doing other actions!
Carbon offsets are not an “excuse” to emit.
Some critics have cautioned that carbon offsets could be seen as the modern-day “indulgences” where rich people could pay the church to receive the punishment they’d receive for their sins.
I don’t agree with this comparison, but can see how if people misunderstand carbon offsets, it could be easy to fall into this mentality that carbon offsets are a way for those with the financial privilege to relieve their guilt while not making any other real changes. So, this is something to be aware of!
What to Look Out for With Carbon Offsets
Part of the nuance that comes with carbon offsetting is that it’s not all created equal. In fact, a European Union study found that 85% of the projects they reviewed most likely overestimated their emissions reductions.
How is this possible? Well, assuming that the project is real in the first place (which unfortunately has not always been the case), there are a few risks, specifically with tree planting projects.
The most widely cited risks are:
- Leakage. Are the trees being planted in one place but cut down elsewhere? Is deforestation avoided in one place but then another area is simply being deforested instead?
- Additionality. Would this project have happened anyway even without the carbon offsets or are the carbon offsets truly additional?
- Permanence. Will the trees be permanent or will they be cut down in 10, 30, 50 years?
- Measurement. Carbon cycles don’t function as a simple chemistry equation — they are complex and therefore, measuring carbon “capture” is quite complex.
Carbon Offset Verifications
Looking into all of these potential risks can be time consuming and you may still not even be able to get full transparency from certain companies. Thankfully there are some standard groups and auditors providing certifications for carbon offsets just as there are for food, clothing, and other goods.
Where to Purchase Carbon Offsets
There’s clearly a lot to consider when purchasing carbon offsets! That’s why it is useful to find a trustworthy carbon offset company that has done their due diligence on the projects they support.
SimpliZero is one of these companies — the carbon offsets purchased through SimpliZero go towards projects that are certified by The Gold Standard or the Verified Carbon Standard.
And every project focuses on both environmental and social impact, which increases the positive difference that these carbon offsets can make in these communities.
Here are a few of the projects SimpliZero invests in:
Solar Power Project in India: Verified by the Gold Standard, this project in Rajasthan, India replaces coal power with solar energy. So far, these solar panels are able to generate nearly 800,000 megawatts of renewable electricity per year, reducing CO2 emissions (by replacing coal) by 694,471 tonnes/metric tons per year! Additionally, the project is funding upgraded infrastructure and basic amenities to twelve local schools.
Clean Drinking Water in Cambodia: This project — also verified by the Gold Standard — supports Cambodian social enterprise Hydrologic in their mission to provide safe, clean drinking water to Cambodian families. Hydrologic produces ceramic water purifiers locally (which has created 25 local jobs to date) and distributes hundreds of thousands of filters per year to two million families. This reduces CO2 emissions because the families no longer need to boil their water to purify it, reducing their reliance on gas stoves and firewood.
Biogas Plant in India: Another Gold Standard-verified project, this project in Tamil Nadu, India converts 120,000 tons of chicken litter and leftovers from the starch and sugar industries annually into renewable energy using a digestion plant that they constructed. In addition to reducing methane emissions, this project sustains 30 local jobs, produces 2.4 megawatts of electricity, 10,000 tons of organic fertilizer per year.
This is just a sampling of the socially and ecologically-minded projects that SimpliZero carbon offsets go towards. To learn more about the projects SimpliZero funds, visit simplizero.com.
Now you may be wondering…
How Much Do Carbon Offsets Cost?
Carbon offsets are often far less expensive than people think. SimpliZero’s basic plan — which is enough to offset the average amount of carbon emissions for an individual’s country of residence — is $5/month.
For $7/month, you can offset emissions plus plant 10 trees through Eden Reforestation Projects (a reputable tree-planting organization that works collaboratively to ensure the long-term protection of the trees planted) and for $15/month, you can offset emissions, plant 20 trees, and choose from higher social impact projects.
For transparency purposes, SimpliZero will track the carbon credits for all projects in their offset platform. When you purchase a plan with SimpliZero, they provide you with a monthly certificate showing the offset. You will receive a transaction ID when you sign-up with SimpliZero, which is the registry for the project(s) you are contributing to.
SimpliZero also continues to engage subscribers in ways they can lead a more conscious lifestyle with various pledges. These pledges are changes for things like washing your clothes on cold or reducing meat consumption!
Looking to subscribe or wanting to learn more?
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