Buying Carbon Offsets

carbonneutral

With bands like Coldplay and Pink Floyd releasing carbon-neutral albums, airlines like SilverJet claiming carbon neutrality and a growing troop of celebrities trumpeting their low-carbon lifestyles, a person might wonder how they all do it. How do bands, businesses and people cancel out what seems like an unavoidable emission? Carbon neutrality begins with reduction. It’s a concentrated effort to produce less waste and use more renewable energy. After reduction has reached its limit, or its comfortable threshold, carbon offsets can make up for the rest.

Carbon offsets are a form of trade. As people and businesses become more aware of their own contributions to global warming, some turn to carbon offsets as a way to go neutral. When you buy an offset, you fund projects that reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The projects might restore forests, update power plants and factories or increase the energy efficiency of buildings and transportation. Carbon offsets let you pay to reduce the global GHG total instead of making radical or impossible reductions of your own. GHG emissions mix quickly with the air and, unlike other pollutants, spread around the entire planet. Because of this, it doesn’t really matter where GHG reductions take place if fewer emissions enter the atmosphere.

Carbon offsets are voluntary. People and businesses buy them to reduce their carbon footprints or build up their green image. Some companies make real efforts to modify their operations, create fewer GHG emissions and offset the rest. Offsets don’t excuse excess, but if viewed as aid for people and the environment, they can be beneficial.

Offset companies first estimate a customer’s personal carbon output. Their web sites include carbon calculators that determine the total GHG produced by a year’s worth of electricity or driving, an event or even a round-trip flight. Offset companies then charge an amount based on their own GHG price per ton. The money funds programs that offset an equal amount of emissions. Some offset companies allow customers to choose their projects; others do not.  Forestry offset projects are popular because they represent real, visible improvements. People feel more comfortable buying 50 trees than sequestering a ton of methane.

Some environmentalists, however, doubt the validity and effectiveness of carbon offsets as it difficult to judge the quality of offset providers and projects. Trees don’t always live a full life, sequestration projects (for the long-term containment of emissions) sometimes fail and offset companies occasionally deceive their customers. Carbon offsets do, however, raise awareness about lowering the GHG world total.

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