Thinking about buying offsets?

The relatively wealthy person’s solution to personal accountability for GHG emissions.

Susan Robertson
Jul 13 · 4 min read
photo by the author. 2019

I bought a car recently after not having one for about 18 months. I got in it and dreamed of doing groceries in less than the “speed of bus.” Then I remembered the waste that it generates in old tires and then the guilt over green house gasses kicked in.

I couldn’t afford an electric or hybrid car, and I look forward to the point where there are enough of them available second hand that it becomes no big deal. However, in the meantime, drivers like me have a choice. We can pay someone else to do something that will take green house gasses out of the air to offset the ones we put in from driving our car.

We can buy carbon offsets from an offset provider. Offset providers will plant trees or invest in alternative energies or provide community development funding that transforms energy usage on your behalf.

I’ve checked a few of them out for all of us. You’re welcome.

The first step is to know how much you and your family are contributing to green house gas emissions. Here is a handy calculator that allows you to add in everything — your housing, you car, and even your alternative transport choices like busing and your consumption habits, and allows you to select which country you live in. I took a stab at my household natural gas (furnace and water heater) and electricity usage but I think I came up far too low. I put in my car usage and came up with around 1.9 metric tonnes of C02 for what I think my annual usage will be. That is consistent with other estimates I’ve made using online calculators or my own back of the envelope calculations.

Annually, on average, Canadians emit about 15 metric tonnes per year. I’m likely below that because I am a household of one, but that means my emissions per person are far higher because I live alone.

The next step is to buy offsets.

I checked out one in more detail. Carbonfootprint.com (linked above as well) allowed me to calculate my personal carbon footprint and then kindly offered me a selection of choices to offset that footprint.

Here they are:

It seems I can assuage my consumer guilt by spending about $100 USD per year to cover my potential full footprint of about 15 t per year. The car — on it’s own I can easily cover my footprint and emissions by spending a mere $36.16 and that would cover me for two years. I can afford that much money. Many people in developed countries can.

Is there a really good reason why we don’t, en masse?

Offsets fall into a category of goods economists call credence goods. These are good that you buy because you believe them to have specific characteristics. Organic food falls into this category because it’s not possible for the average consumer to look at an apple or a banana and see if it was organically produced or not. You have to believe the sticker on the product that it is what it says it is. That’s why organic food labelling standards exist in some countries.

One reason people who are able may not buy offsets en masse is that they don’t know exactly what the money is going to do. Nobody wants to be a patsy and have the money go to some crook, or to line the pockets of an institution that doesn’t need it.

So what makes an offset provider credible? How do you know the money goes to what you paid for? One of the things to look for is that the funds are being managed by a well known company. JP Morgan, for example, runs an offset fund as do other major financial institutions.

Projects that meet a set of criteria can be classified as Gold Standard. The Gold Standard requires projects to meet four criteria: They must be ambitious and inclusive, make credible claims, commit to continuous improvement, and be able to document impact.

Here are some resources to help you find an offset provider that suits your needs:

Goldstandard.org lists offsets that can be purchased, by type. Forestry, energy efficiency, community development projects. T

Offset Consumer offers a list of recommended offset providers although the links all seem to be out of date and not working.

Conserve Energy Future has a list of recommended offset providers for the USA.

Ends Carbon Offsets has an extensive global list of offset providers.

I haven’t figured out which of these I will use but clearly there are choices out there that will suit me and there is no excuse for me not to do to it.

What’s your excuse?

Susan Robertson

Written by

Susan is an economist who worked in international development. Interested in food, board games, dogs, and development. Writing about whatever I feel like.

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