Carbon offsetting is the process of purchasing, and cancelling, carbon emissions credits equivalent to the carbon footprint of your activity, company, product or service. Once the carbon credits are cancelled (i.e. irredeemably taken out of circulation so that no-one else can claim the benefit of the carbon emissions reduction that they represent) you have “offset” the emissions of your chosen carbon footprint. Carbon offsetting can be done for anything, from the emissions caused by personal use of a car to a company’s entire carbon footprint. Depending on how the carbon footprint is measured, both direct (e.g. travel) and indirect emissions (e.g. emissions from the production of bought-in raw materials) can be offset.
People and companies offset for one of the following reasons:
- Because they have to or,
- Because they want to
Offsetters in the “have to” category are offsetting either because their customer is requiring them to or because they can use offsets for compliance with a mandatory emissions trading scheme and the incentive is to save money. Typically, such offsetters are, legitimately, seeking the best value for money.
So long as what they buy meets the minimum standard they are faced with, the lowest priced offset is often sufficient. Offsetters in the “want to” category are offsetting because they feel it is the right thing to do. Such people or companies typically wrestle with the trade-off between other positive environmental and social features of a given carbon offset and the price that these features add to a basic offset. Typically, although not always, the more positive attributes a carbon offset has, the more expensive it is.
So long as an offset is real, measurable, verifiable, and additional it is legitimate to use for footprint offsetting purposes. So, no offset type is the wrong one to use, it just depends on your outlook. However, if you are paying more than a few euros for each carbon offset you might want to double-check with your offset provider that most of the price paid is being going to the project developer to incentivise them to create more and more carbon-reducing projects.
Anybody can get involved in carbon offsetting, from individuals right up to the largest global corporations.
People have an increasingly good understanding of the impact of their carbon footprint on the environment. The Paris accords of 2015, that aim to limit global average temperature rise to 1.5ºC and no higher than 2°C, is feeding this understanding. Consequently, shareholders and consumers are increasingly demanding greater environmental accountability from themselves and the products they invest in or consume.
Alongside implementing practical carbon emission reduction measures, offsetting a carbon footprint enables businesses or individuals to show that they recognise the impact that they have on the climate. Whether it is flying somewhere for a family holiday or the emissions from a simple corporate event, nearly everything we do has an environmental impact. Offsetting offers a way to reduce the climate impact of emissions that are difficult or impossible to avoid by paying others, to make emissions reductions for you. The market for offset credits offers one way to negate your carbon footprint.
There is a huge variety of offset projects located in nearly every country in the world. Project technologies vary from every type of renewable energy to energy efficiency, afforestation and reforestation to industrial gas destruction. Each carbon credit produced by these projects represents one tonne less of CO2, or CO2 equivalent, being emitted than would have been the case had the project not existed.
Offset generating projects are thoroughly audited and the groups responsible for issuing the carbon credits employ robust quality criteria. The most well-known certification scheme is the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) that is overseen by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). All offset projects must demonstrate additionality, i.e. that the project (and thus the emissions reductions it produces) depends on the revenue generated by carbon credit sales to exist. This guarantees that only projects where carbon credit generation is part of the economics of a project and not a by-product qualify to receive carbon credits.
There is a bewildering array of project types, jurisdictions and carbon crediting regimes that produce carbon credits that can be cancelled to offset a carbon footprint. The first step is to determine whether you want the cheapest carbon credit or one from a project with a little more “character”. For example, a renewable energy project or even a clean cook stove project located in a Least Developed country that contributes to sustainable development goals on several levels. A good carbon offsetting company will offer a choice of projects, project locations and even a choice between offset crediting mechanisms.