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The (Dirty) Truth About Carbon Offsetting

Once upon a time, in a long ago land when “green” was just starting to morph from a colour to an all-encompassing word for “eco-friendly” and any “green” initiative was cause for celebration, carbon offsetting was the coolest kid on the block.

With a donation to a carbon offsetting fund, the emissions from your air travel, personal vehicle travel, and daily life on the whole could disappear, offset by the work of organizations removing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses from the air in mysterious, magical ways that weren’t explained well but sounded fantastic in theory.

Then, a dark time came, when consumers realized that many companies in this new carbon offsetting industry weren’t doing what they claimed.

Some were taking a large cut of consumers’ money and only giving 10 per cent or less to organisations working to cut green house gas emissions. Others, such as many carbon sequestration projects, simply didn’t pan out technically. Others just assuaged consumers’ guilt over personal emissions, allowing consumers to feel they were free to continue polluting the air.

Carbon offset companies went from Prince Charming, rescuing our damsel-in-distress planet from the fire-breathing dragon of greenhouse gas pollution, to a suspicious potential villain, the evil stepmother whose motives you can never quite figure out.

What Exactly is Carbon Offsetting?

Carbon offset companies reduce greenhouse gasses by:

  • planting more trees (reforestation)
  • improving energy efficiency in industrial plants
  • reducing dangerous sources of personal emissions (cooking stoves in rural communities)
  • reducing livestock gas emissions (cows around the world contribute ## tons of methane to the environment each year)
  • investing in clean energy research (for lower-cost, easier-to-install solar panels or just the next big thing)

The reality of the infrastructure of the developed world is that it is a difficult, long-term project to lower the emissions of first-world industries. Consequently, most carbon offset programs target the developing world, where you can cut emissions more quickly and with less expense.

But whether you are reducing emissions in your hometown or country or at a factory in China or India or through a reforestation project in Ecuador, you are having the same impact on the global greenhouse gas bottom-line.

How Can You Find A Carbon Offsetting Agency You Can Trust?

The short answer is: do your research. Make sure a company is actually doing what they claim to do, or giving money to the organisation they claim to, and that their efforts are actually having an effect.

A handful of organisations evaluate carbon offset programs world-wide, so when you support an organisation they list, you can be sure your money is actually reducing global greenhouse gas output:

Several well-respected carbon offset programs allow you to choose which project in their portfolio you support:

  • Atmosfair – the top-ranked carbon offset company in Tufts University’s report on the best carbon offset companies
  • Carbonfund.org – you choose whether your money funds renewable energy, energy efficiency, or reforestation.
  • Native Energy – focuses on funding community-based wind, biogas, solar, and other carbon-reducing projects
  • Sterling Planet – a wide portfolio covers projects around the world ranging from tree planting to solar panel installation to landfill gas recovery
  • Terrapass – projects focus on wind farm creation and methane harvesting

Have you tried a carbon offset program? Do you have one you love? Have you had a bad experience with one?

Filed under: Featured Articles, Getting there

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When she was ten, Gabi Logan was commended by her school as an "environmentalist" after spending recess and lunch picking up trash around her school for a week. Now she's a freelance blogger and travel writer who encourages travelers to use sustainable travel methods and connect to local culture along the way. Her work has also appeared in Transitions Abroad, GoMad Nomad, and publications at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. You can read more about her at gabilogan.com.

2 Comments

  1. Great post Gabi! I hold a major in ecotourism and its so frustrating reading articles by bloggers that have been poorly researched on this subject and just continue on the trend of ‘green washing’ tourism. Your is well written, full of factual content and great resources. Well done! The only resource I would add is the UNWTO – they have some great carbon initiatives for business as well.
    Peter recently posted..Two Nights in OsloMy Profile

    • Gabi Logan says

      Peter, thank you for your kind words and stamp of approval. I have to say, I’m jealous of your degree in ecotourism. That’s a hefty qualification!

      It’s funny that you mention green washing, because I’ll be tackling that soon too. Please get in touch if you some recommended resource on that topic that I should be sure to touch on. I’ll add a link to UNWTO here as well so we can really be a complete resource.

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