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.
Carbon offsets have not lived up to their promise for two main reasons. First, when carbon offsets first became popular in the mid-2000s, some unethical companies took carbon offset money to finance projects that would have occurred even without the carbon offsets, or for projects which did not reduce CO2 by the promised amount. These projects generated bad press and tainted the entire concept of carbon offsets. Second, businesses and families, even those with the means to do so, are no longer being asked nor expected to eliminate or even substantially reduce their carbon footprint. The principal focus now of carbon reduction efforts is on energy producers rather than energy consumers, and on mandatory carbon pricing schemes such as cap and trade and carbon taxes.
Despite their past failures and bad press, carbon offsets remain a uniquely important tool in reducing the impact of individuals and businesses on atmospheric CO2 . If we are unwilling to give up traveling in airplanes, cars (even electric-powered ones) or heating and lighting our homes, carbon offsets are the only way that we can cancel out our personal contribution to the planet’s dire CO2 oversaturation problem. Carbon offsets provide us with a reason to count our CO2 emissions, and they make possible an ethic of adding to the CO2 trapped in the atmosphere. Without carbon offsets, there is little reason to keep track of our carbon emissions, and minimal ability to take personal responsibility for them.
Offsets, like carbon taxes, put a price on CO2 emissions, and provide a financial incentive for carbon users to reduce their emissions. Citizens who favor carbon taxes can use offsets to voluntarily tax themselves without the need for Congress to act. If the ethic of offsetting because sufficiently widespread, and if offset opportunities were able to scale accordingly, offsets could theoretically be an effective substitute for a carbon tax.
Rehabilitation of carbon offsets as a primary carbon reduction strategy will require rebuilding the public’s confidence in their efficacy. The process of regaining credibility will require greater transparency and more credible independent verification of their results. In recent years well-respected standards for carbon offsets such as the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) and the Gold Standard have emerged, although these standards are not well known by most individuals and businesses interested in purchasing carbon offsets. The press also has an important role to play, not only in educating the public regarding how carbon offsets work, but also in objectively reporting on the successes and failures of carbon offset projects, and in uncovering fraudulent offsets.
Carbon offsets have fallen out of favor despite their enormous potential. Now that improved standards for carbon offsets have emerged, they are ready to be a means for people to zero-out their carbon footprint, and to be a cornerstone in the effort to get people to take personal responsibility for their carbon emissions.