Are Carbon Offsets Really Worth Your Money?

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Concerned about the carbon emissions from the last time you flew, drove your SUV or turned up your heater? Carbon offsetting may be the solution.

Like pouring water into a bathtub, then draining the same amount of water you poured in, when you buy a carbon offset, ideally, the same amount of carbon dioxide poured into the atmosphere from a particular activity is drained.

The money that goes toward the carbon offset purchase is used to fund projects that aid in absorbing carbon dioxide or prevent carbon dioxide from being emitted.

For example, when purchasing a carbon offset on EnviroCitizen.org, half of the money used to pay for the carbon offset goes toward an endeavor to reduce freight truck engine idling. The other half of the money goes toward a project that turns the carbon and methane emissions from a landfill in Massachusetts into clean energy, according to Mike Valenti, founder of EnviroCitizen.

But some warn against buying carbon offsets, saying that it may actually encourage people to travel or consume more because they feel they can atone for it by buying a carbon offset. Critics point out that what people really should be doing is making more significant behavioral changes.

However, it’s not always practical or in your control to make the choice to not contribute carbon.

“When your boss says get on the plane and travels to St. Louis, you get on the plane and travel to St. Louis,” explains Valenti. “But, that plane’s going to kick carbon all the way there, and all the way back, so what do you do about it? How do you make it right with the Earth?”

Although the idea of draining the same amount of carbon from the atmosphere as you pour in is a solid idea, ensuring that it actually happens when you purchase a carbon offset is problematic.

It can be difficult to calculate exactly how much carbon a particular activity generates and how effective a carbon dioxide removal project actually is. Preventing one forested area from being converted into a housing lot, for example, may simply cause the developer to move to another forested area, explains the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences in its report on forest carbon offsets. Additionally, there is a lack of quality assurance in the carbon-offset market, reports the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Despite the potential problems and the fact that there are no tax incentives for selling or buying carbon offsets, the U.S. voluntary market for carbon offsets is growing, and more than 600 organizations develop, market or sell offsets, according to GAO. And, although a variety of quality assurance mechanisms exist, including standards for verification and monitoring, there is no data showing the extent of their use.

GAO reports that federal oversight of the industry may enhance the market’s transparency and improve consumer protection. Congress might consider, among other things, directing the establishment of standardized quality assurance mechanisms.

However, as long as there is no federal regulation of the carbon offset industry, it may be up to you to do your own research on the legitimacy of a carbon offset purchase.

Carbonfund.org, the company partnered with EnviroCitizen for the carbon offset projects, reports on its Web site that all offset projects are verified by a third party, such as the American Carbon Registry, to meet the highest certification standards.

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