Don’t Write Off Carbon Offsets Just Yet

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The world of carbon offsetting is a very complex one that comprises both voluntary and compulsory participation.

Individuals, companies, or governments can voluntarily opt to purchase carbon offsets to mitigate their own carbon use such as driving to work; yet those in the compulsory market are obliged to purchase carbon offsets in compliance with their caps on total carbon dioxide emitted. But before we delve into the pros and cons of carbon offsetting, let’s take a brief look at what this recent phenomenon is all about.

In the broadest sense, carbon offsetting is defined as innovating various methods to reduce carbon dioxide emissions caused by human activity. In this regard, renewable forms of energy such as wind farms and solar panels can be considered carbon offsetting since they have the effect of decreasing energy consumption derived from fossil fuel, a major source of carbon dioxide emissions. The planting of trees is another example since they sequester carbon dioxide, though planting trees alone is not nearly enough to offset the harmful atmospheric gas.

Today, carbon offsetting is typically recognized as cash payment for mitigation of one’s carbon dioxide use. Here’s how it works: you pay an organization a certain amount of money to offset the carbon dioxide released into the air on your next vacation to Walt Disney World. This is referred to purchasing carbon offsets, the measurement being one ton of carbon dioxide per carbon offset. The organization then funds various carbon reduction projects such as wind, solar, and geothermal. Thus, the carbon emissions you incurred during your trip are theoretically reduced or even negated in accordance with your carbon offset purchase.

From an environmental standpoint, the obvious benefit is a reduction in harmful carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming. However, carbon offsetting is not without controversy.

Probably the main drawback to carbon offsetting is the lack of regulation and third party oversight of this emerging market. Numerous companies offering carbon offsets have been cited for selling offsets for renewable energy projects that were already in development; thus the carbon offsets would have occurred despite the companies’ involvement.

Furthermore, suspect startup companies have entered the marketplace who claim to invest carbon offsets in renewable energy projects, yet are simply deceiving the public for financial gain. In the absence of standardization and the establishment of industry-wide protocols, too much room for error exists. In other words, buyer beware when it comes to purchasing carbon credits through the voluntary market.

Additionally, carbon offsetting puts into question whether it allows companies to go about their polluting ways rather than finding the answer in behavioral modifications toward sustainability. If Company A can get away with excess pollution with the excuse that it purchases carbon offsets for its activities, what good does that do to further attitudes toward green living and sustainability?

Indeed, it is so much easier to keep paying out money in offsets than to change one’s behavior. But without significant changes in attitude and behavior, we won’t be able to effectively tackle the global warming problem.

So what is the answer to stemming emissions of dangerous greenhouse gases into our atmosphere?

While carbon offsetting appears efficacious at first glance, it may not necessarily be the case. This is particularly true of individuals and organizations who simply fork over a couple hundred thousand dollars to plant some trees, claiming it offsets their carbon emissions when in fact planting trees alone is hotly debated as an efficacious carbon offset. It might increase their image in the public eye, but measuring carbon offsets versus actual carbon dioxide emitted can be somewhat difficult.

But before we write off the practice altogether, let’s give it more time to see how increased regulation, standardization, and oversight would help to reduce total worldwide carbon dioxide output.


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