Carbon offsets allow users of carbon to “offset” their carbon use by funding projects which reduce an equal or greater amount of carbon emissions elsewhere. For example, a person who flies from Seattle to New York and back emits about 7,000 pounds of CO2 equivalent into the atmosphere. To counteract the emissions from the flight, a person can “buy an offset” to help fund a project (a typical project is purchasing high-efficiency cookstoves for people in Africa presently using carbon-spewing stoves) that will prevent 7,000 pounds of CO2 from being released into the atmosphere. By purchasing an offset, a person can theoretically make the cross-country flight without adding to the atmospheric over-saturation of CO2 that is threatening our planet. Some people purchase offsets to counterbalance their entire carbon footprint, which averages about 17 tons or 34,000 pounds for the average American. Most voluntary carbon offsets are purchased by businesses interested in “greening” the image of their business.
Given that carbon offsets provide just about the only way for individuals and businesses to zero out their carbon footprint, one would think that carbon offsets would be increasing popular, given growing concerns about global warming. Just the opposite—voluntary carbon offset transactions in 2013 totaled only $78 million, off 42% from 2010 levels, and sufficient to offset only 9 million tons of CO2 (the CO2 emissions of 500,000 Americans). A flurry of press articles and academic studies about carbon offsets from 2006-2010 has tapered to nearly nothing. The last time the New York Times wrote about offsets was in 2007.