What Are Carbon Offsets?

Carbon offsetting is popular yet controversial.

Sophie Hirsh - Author

Apr. 4 2019, Updated 11:49 a.m. ET

tree planting carbon offset
Source: istock

There are so many ways to reduce your carbon footprint. One that has become increasingly popular — and controversial — in recent years is the practice of purchasing carbon offsets. If you've heard the phrase but aren't too familiar with the concept, you may be wondering: What exactly are carbon offsets? Are they scams, or are they really worth the money?

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Carbon offsetting is essentially paying someone else to curb your own CO2 emissions somewhere on Earth, therefore "offsetting" an activity you did that generated CO2 emissions. Numerous companies sell carbon offsets, and buying them is as easy as visiting a website and typing in your credit card info. 

Carbon offsets are designed to either prevent CO2 from entering the atmosphere or remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Most companies offer carbon offsets in the form of either tree-planting (which removes CO2 from the atmosphere), and many other companies sell carbon offsets in the renewable energy sector (which reduces the need for fossil fuels, which emit CO2 into the atmosphere, therefore preventing emissions), Explain That Stuff noted.

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The process of carbon offsetting is measured by the tonne. Basically, if you do an activity that emits one tonne of CO2 into the atmosphere, carbon offset companies encourage you to purchase one tonne's worth of carbon offsets, effectively preventing or removing a tonne of CO2 from the atmosphere.

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So many activities that humans do every day generate CO2 emissions, but one in particular has a strong association with carbon offsets: flying. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), some airlines even present customers with the option of purchasing carbon offsets after booking a flight online, because flying's large environmental impact is out of the customer's control. Many carbon offset websites allow you to type in the cities you traveled between, and the website will calculate how many tonnes of CO2 you should offset.

In addition to individuals purchasing carbon offsets, there are numerous brands and companies that use carbon offsetting to try to neutralize their footprints. For example, apparel company tentree was founded on the principle of planting ten trees for every item sold, with a goal of planting 1 billion trees by 2030. "We founded tentree because we wanted to create a positive impact on the world and we believe that tree planting is one of the best ways to do that," tentree CEO Derrick Emsley told Green Matters in an interview earlier this year.

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Additionally, in late February, Etsy announced that it would be purchasing carbon offsets to neutralize 100 percent of the carbon emissions created during its sellers' shipping processes. And last year, Lyft announced that it would be offsetting 100 percent of carbon emissions generated by Lyft rides. Of course, it would be better for the environment if those packages were never mailed or those rides were never taken — but since that isn't really an option for those businesses, purchasing carbon offsets makes sense.

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If you choose to purchase carbon offsets to neutralize your own emissions, it's imperative to make sure the company you're shopping from is legitimate. As the NRDC pointed out, some online carbon offset companies are scams. Luckily, there are a few ways to verify the validity of a carbon offset company.

The NRDC offers a few suggestions, including: look for evidence that a third party has physically seen the company planting trees on the land; the company planting the trees should confirm that the trees are being planted permanently; the company should be transparent about its practices. If you're in the market to buy some carbon offsets, the Sierra Club endorses the company NativeEnergy.

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So, is it really worth carbon offsetting? The organization Carbon Offset Research & Education (CORE) explains that buying carbon offsets should only be done as a last resort. Instead, start off by reducing your own environmental impact. For example, instead of driving a hummer and neutralizing your car's impact with carbon offsets, switch to an electric or hybrid vehicle, or rely more on public transportation and bikes; instead of eating animal products at every meal and buying carbon offsets, slowly start increasing your intake of vegan or vegetarian meals; and instead of buying plastic drink bottles every day and purchasing offsets, drink tap or filtered water from a reusable bottle. Swaps like these allow you to lower your carbon footprint even more than a carbon offset would, because you're attacking the problem from the source. And bonus: you'll save some cash.

Before spending money on anything in life, most people consider if there's a way to achieve the same result for free and by skipping the middleman. For example, before renting a car to attend a friend's wedding, you might check to see if any of your friends attending the wedding own a car that you can instead ride in. Take that same approach when it comes to buying carbon offsets, and only purchase them when you are not able to offset your carbon emissions yourself — and only if you can verify that the company is legitimate.

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