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Reality Check: Six Questions You Should Ask About Your Carbon Offset

Posted: 11/08/11 01:46 PM ET

As more and more airlines, travel-related companies and websites offer carbon offsets to neutralize the impact of our day-to-day activities on the climate, people are faced with the seemingly daunting task of figuring out what offset projects are doing the most to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the gases that are causing climate change. There are a wide variety of projects to choose from, including composting organic waste, changing forestry and farming practices and preventing emissions of industrial gases.

All projects that reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are equally valuable in addressing global climate change. A ton of carbon dioxide reduced through a reforestation project in Michigan has the same positive impact on the atmosphere as a ton of CO2-equivalent emission reductions at a nitrogen fertilizer plant in Louisiana. The key is to make sure that the emission reductions are real. So how do you do that? Here are six questions you should ask before you buy.

  1. Where is it registered? Credible offset projects are registered with a third-party registry operated by a reputable nonprofit organization, such as the Climate Action Reserve, or a government agency. If you want to check out the registry, take a look at its website and see how many and what kinds of projects it has registered and whether it requires its projects to be verified by an independent third-party (similar to a financial audit). If the project is not listed on a registry, find another one to invest in.

  2. What makes it additional? To make sure you are spending your offset dollars wisely, it's critical to look at the "additionality" of the project. Additionality means that the project and its greenhouse gas reductions would not have occurred normally. It's very complex to make this determination and registries take different approaches. While you probably won't want to get too far into the weeds here, you should try to at least understand the genesis of your project and make sure its additionality story makes sense to you.

  3. Where is it located? This one is often a matter of personal preference. Some people like to support local projects in the area where they live. Others want to support projects in developing countries. From a climate change perspective, if the offset is real - that is to say that the project wouldn't have happened anyway and is backed up by a credible registry -- the climate will benefit no matter where it is located.

  4. What kind of project is it? Because greenhouse gas emissions are associated with practically everything we do, there are a wide variety of projects to choose from. The project type does not matter from a climate perspective, as long as the emission reduction is real and the project is credible. Nevertheless, some projects can be more appealing than others. You be may be more drawn to a redwood forest or a dairy farm than a project that destroys industrial gas that would have been vented from a large manufacturing facility. Or maybe not.

  5. What vintage is the offset? Like a fine wine, every offset has a vintage or year that the reductions took place. Buyers generally look for vintages that are within a couple of years of the emissions that they want to offset. For example, if you want to offset your big honeymoon trip to Southeast Asia in 2012, you might feel that offsets from vintages 2010 or 2011 are most relevant.

  6. Are the greenhouse gas reductions permanent? This question is only relevant to forestry and certain kinds of agricultural projects. Projects that stop GHG emissions from being released into the atmosphere by capturing and destroying the gas are permanent. The destroyed gas cannot magically come back. Forestry projects, on the other hand, pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by storing it in trees. The gas can be released if the trees are cut down or burn in a forest fire. If you decide to purchase a forestry offset, you should make sure the project has provisions to keep the GHG out of the atmosphere for at least 100 years, which is the international standard for the permanence of forestry projects. Anything shorter may negatively impact the climate and should be avoided.