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The critical issue is how effective the offsets are - for example, if trees are planted, when are they planted, and how long before they absorb significant amounts of greenhouse gases - or indeed, whether they are planted at all.
For a project to generate legitimate carbon offsets it has to be additional - not "business as usual projects" such as projects that would have been done anyway to comply with new laws or to reduce energy costs.
If renewable energy is sold under the banner of green power, the carbon credits they may earn should not be sold separately for an income stream - this is effectively selling the "green" aspect of the energy twice, and the green power customers are not having the positive benefit they intended by paying a premium for green power. This problem can occur through lack of transparency and oversight.
It may be worth asking whether there are personal measures that could have a similar impact, but more effectively. Planting a tree, buying a more fuel-efficient car, putting up sun shields as a passive solar design measure, purchasing a solar hot water heater (or space heater), insulating your house or eating less meat may be more effective than paying for carbon credits. Some will be very costly (buying a new car, if you didn't have plans to do so anyway) while others may put you financially in front within 3 years[verification needed] (solar hot water).
Choosing carbon offsets
- Reduce your carbon footprint as much as possible as a first step.
- Choose a reputable offset provider. Look for accreditation from the international Gold Standard and Clean Development Mechanism; VCS; VER+; or Greenhouse Friendly.
Detailed version - if you intend to do it as thoroughly as possible:
- First reduce your carbon footprint as much as possible - carbon offsets are not as effective as having a low impact to start with.
- Choose offset providers who:
- Give detailed information about their products, including the projects used to generate offsets.
- Help you estimate your carbon footprint and explain the calculation.
- Are independently accredited by a recognized standard or scheme. The international Gold Standard and Clean Development Mechanism is highly regarded; accreditation by VCS, VER+ or Greenhouse Friendly is also a good sign.
- Guarantee to retire the offset from the market, or transfer ownership to you so that you can retire it yourself. This helps ensure that the offsets are real - that emissions you save aren't claimed by someone else. Get documentary evidence of your offset purchase.
- Note that many offset providers can provide different types of offsets on request. Choose offset projects:
- With accreditation as mentioned above.
- Which address the root causes - changing the activities that create greenhouse gases in the first place. These include energy efficiency programs, increasing renewable energy, protecting forests and preventing waste going to landfill.
- Which are listed in a registry to tracks ownership of offsets, recording their removal from the market, and ensuring that they are not sold again.
Problems with offsets
The fundamental problem with offsets is that fossil fuel combustion takes carbon out of the lithosphere, and puts it into the atmosphere, which is part of the biosphere. Soil, vegetation, oceans and atmosphere will equilibrate at a higher level.
Planting trees does nothing to help this, except perhaps speed up the equilibration. It doesn't put carbon back in the rocks, which would be the only true "offsetting".
Other offsetting schemes, such as funding the production of wind- or solar-power, also do nothing to reduce the net amount of carbon leaving the lithosphere and entering the atmosphere, but only offset potential increases in future greenhouse gas emissions, by displacing fossil fuel production.
- Tips for buying offsets - Carbon Offset Watch (Australia), via archive.org
- Carbon offsets in Australia
- Air travel, climate change, and green consumerism
- Travel choices
- Much Ado About Carbon Offsets - blog post on Copybrighter.com, October 28th, 2007. Asks whether carbon offsets as practised are effective or just greenwash.
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