Can Carbon Offsets Really Erase Your Environmental Footprint With the Swipe of a Credit Card?

Photo: Getty Images/MStudioImages
Remember the days when one could simply drive a Prius, carry a reusable cup, and consider themselves a decent ally to the environment? How quickly times have changed. Ever since last October, when scientists proclaimed that the world needs to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 or be faced with climate catastrophe, it's become clear that we all need to do a lot more to reduce our footprints. This is why carbon offsets have been getting so much buzz in recent months. Essentially, they're a way for governments, businesses, and individuals to further neutralize their greenhouse gas-producing activities by investing in projects that reduce or eliminate those gasses in the environment.

If you think you aren't personally responsible for a significant amount of carbon emissions, think again. "All the things we do as the result of being humans alive on the planet today result in carbon emissions," says Peter Miller, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Climate and Clean Energy Program, Western Region. "Carbon emissions" is a blanket term for greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide and methane, and these emissions are produced whenever we drive, fly, or use gas and electricity to power our homes. Just about every product we buy also contributes to the world's emissions load—livestock farming and the apparel industry are two particularly egregious offenders. According to the World Economic Forum, the average American is responsible for 14.95 metric tons of carbon per year. (That's the most, per capita, of any country in the world.) And despite the fact that scientists have been telling us we all need to cut back on our emissions right this second, global levels were nevertheless at a record high in 2018.

Clearly, something must be done—but it would be incredibly difficult, if not flat-out impossible, to live a completely emissions-free lifestyle in 2019. This is where carbon offsets come in.

What are the benefits of carbon offsets?

The biggest selling point for carbon offsets is that they're a fairly low-effort, affordable way of reducing your footprint. There are several reputable companies that help consumers invest in carbon offsetting projects, including Terrapass, Cool Effect, and Green-e. Many airlines, including Delta, JetBlue, and United allow you to purchase offsets for your flight's carbon emissions. Other programs, like the one created by sustainable clothing brand Reformation, offer bundles of credits designed to offset, say, a typical wedding or a year's worth of emissions for an average family of four.

Once you purchase carbon offset credits, the money goes to projects that help to combat the effects of greenhouse gasses. Some common beneficiaries include clean energy projects, water restoration, forest regeneration, and schemes that turn gasses like methane into renewable energy. Cool Effect allows you to choose the specific projects that receive your money, while other programs, like Terrapass, split the cash among multiple programs. In many cases, the projects produce secondary benefits beyond just greenhouse gas reduction, even if that's their main goal. For instance, a wind turbine project may not just reduce a town's reliance on fossil fuels—it could also create jobs and boost the local economy.

As for the cost? Well, the price varies depending on your own emissions and the project you buy into, but carbon offsets are rather affordable. Using Terrapass' calculator, I determined that it would cost me less than $20 a month to offset my (non-electric) car, rideshares, electric and gas usage, fuel, and one domestic flight. According to the calculator, that's the equivalent of planting around 200 urban trees. I'd say it's a small price to pay for getting one step closer to net-zero, right?

Are there any downsides to carbon offsets?

Here's the thing: Carbon offsets haven't always had the best reputation. "You hear a lot of folks say 'Carbon offsets aren’t real'—they point to some of the projects in the past that didn’t provide actual emission reduction," says Miller. One example: Back in 2010, plants in China came under fire for manufacturing refrigerants—a highly potent greenhouse gas—simply to get financial rewards for later destroying them.

Consumer-facing carbon offsets aren't strictly regulated, Miller adds, which leaves the door open for scammers to enter. "You want to be careful and be sure you're getting high-quality offsets that represent real, additional, verified emission reductions," he says. Look for third-party verification that the project actually exists and that it's monitored and enforced. The project should also be "additional," which means that the benefit wouldn't have been achieved without that specific project. "If it were a landfill [project], would the emissions have gone into the atmosphere unless they captured them? If it was a forest planting project, would the land have stayed bare unless they planted the trees? Offsets are always compared to a baseline of what would have happened without the project," Miller explains. In general, he adds, carbon credits from major consumer brands and the programs mentioned above are trustworthy. (The Climate Action Reserve also keeps a registry of verified offset projects.)

Critics of carbon offsetting also argue that people may view it as a free pass to carry on with unsustainable lifestyle choices. That's why Miller recommends people cut back on their emissions however they can before they turn to offsets. "Drive less. If you’re gonna drive, get a fuel efficient or preferably an electric car. Make your home as efficient as possible with energy-efficient bulbs or appliances. Think about going somewhere local on vacation instead of flying across the ocean. Eat less meat," he says. "Take those kinds of actions first."

Bottom line: Can carbon offsets actually have a measurable impact on the environment?

While it might seem like a quick fix, Miller believes that climate offsetting really is an important tool in the fight against climate change. "We clearly need to do a lot more—offsets are not a substitute for replacing coal plants with solar [energy] or gasoline-powered cars with electric vehicles—but it's fair to say we won’t be able to get to our long-term, 100-percent decarbonization goals without some investment in offsets," he says.

As more people begin to demand opportunities to offset their carbon emissions, expect for them to become even more accessible than they are now. "There was a spike in interest a while ago and that seems to be coming back with all the [recent] publicity [around carbon offsets]," says Miller. "That should come to the attention of companies, and hopefully they respond by making them more easily available to customers." Hey, if Nike were to give me the chance to offset the new sneakers I just bought, I'd take it—and I have a feeling I'm not alone.

While you're at it, start buying compostable face wipes and wool sneakers—every step towards sustainability helps. 

Loading More Posts...