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Carbon offsets

Carbon offsets are an interesting idea for slowing down climate change. You invest in things which reduce pollution, and this offsets the amount of pollution produced by your own consumption. The kinds of things you can invest in include:

  • developing non-polluting energy sources (e.g., wind, solar, methane recapture)
  • helping businesses upgrade their old equipment so it produces less pollution
  • planting trees

There are lots of companies selling carbon offsets, and they're relatively cheap. A typical American can offset his or her greenhouse pollution for about $216/yr. You can offset your car for about $80/yr.

Some environmentalists have criticized carbon offsets for various reasons, but one fact remains:

Buying quality carbon offsets is better than doing nothing.

Of course, you don't have to do nothing. You can drive less, use less electricity, and eat less meat. These things will dramatically reduce your carbon footprint.

But if you won't do these things, for whatever reason, then you're creating a lot of carbon, and in that case buying carbon offsets is better than nothing. And even if you do reduce your carbon footprint, you're still generating some greenhouse gases. Nobody gets their consumption down to zero. I don't drive, I use a tiny amount of electricity, and I eat a strict vegetarian diet. And I still buy carbon offsets. Even though my carbon footprint is small, it still exists. Purchasing high quality carbon offsets lets me mitigate the amount of greenhouse gases generated by my consumption. It can do the same for you. As's slogan goes, "Reduce what you can, offset what you can't."

Below I'll address the criticism against carbon offsets. But first let me tell you about how to get them:


How to buy carbon offsets

Carbon offsets are sold by the ton (i.e., how many tons of carbon pollution you want to offset). So you first need to have an idea of how much carbon your lifestyle produces, which we call your carbon footprint. If you want to take the shortcut, the average in the U.S. is 17 tons for a person and 38 tons for a household. Most carbon offset vendors have calculators on their sites that ask you a few questions so you can find your own personalized carbon footprint, but I've found most of them to be unreasonably cumbersome and several to be wildly inaccurate. You might prefer to use my own Carbon Footprint Calculator, which I think is fast, easy, and accurate.

Once you know how many tons you produce, you can go shopping. There are dozens of different websites that sell offsetcs, so all you have to do is pick one, type in how many tons you want to purchase, and click Buy. But just like with anything else you can buy, the quality of the product differs from one site to another. Some companie's offsets might be focused on projects that have questionable value for carbon reduction (like tree-planting), or on projects that were going to happen anyway even without selling the offsets -- in which case they're not really offsets. To help the consumer find high-quality offsets, I list some of my favorites below, along with some lists of vendor reviews in case you want to do your your own research.


Where to buy carbon offsets

Carbon offset vendors (buy directly)

Climate Care. Rated in the Top 10 by Carbon Catalog, this company focuses on clean energy in developing countries with projects such as wind power, methane from biomass, and fuel substitution. My favorite project is using bicycle-pedal power for irrigation! Offsets sell for $15.50 per ton.

Good Energy Initiative. All their projects are in Israel, and they're one of the only well-ranked companies to include solar power in their project mix. They also promote methane energy and efficient lighting. Offsets sell for $9-15 per ton.

Green Mountain Energy. This is a Texas-based utility and you're investing mostly in their own solar- and wind-power projects. (They also deal in Chicago Climate Exchange Credits and reforestation.) Offsets are $14 per ton.

Bonneville Environmental Foundation. Mostly solar. If you want your offsets to support solar, this is it. Most other vendors don't support solar at all, and for those who do, it's only a small part of their project mix. But BEF concentrates on solar, financing literally dozens of small solar projects. Their offsets cost twice as much as competing offets, though, at $29.40 per ton. Also, their website is painfully slow.

Directories & Reviews of vendors

Carbon Catalog. Thank god! Carbon Catalog ranks around 100 different offset vendors on both level of transparency and quality of their projects. Their handy table shows each company's rating, price per ton, and whether they're a business or non-profit. What's more, you can click through on any vendor to see their exact list of projects, to see whether they're dealing in wind, methane, solar, or reforestation. A great place to choose where to get your offsets.

List of certifications. EcoBusinessLinks has put together a guide listing which vendors' projects have been verified by which watchdogs. I don't think this is as useful as the Carbon Catalog (above), but if you're looking for vendors that meet a particular certification, then this will be helpful.

Tufts University's picks. The Tufts Climate Initiative picked their top four favorite vendors, listed below. By the way, Tufts also recommended choosing vendors whose projects meet The Gold Standard, the highest standard of quality for offset projects in existence.

  • My Climate. The only vendor top-ranked by both Carbon Catalog and Tufts.
  • atmosfair. Their website focuses on air travel, but an offset is an offset, so it's good for any kind of carbon you want to offset.
  • Climate Friendly. Invests in a wind farm in India. Also buys "the highest quality, independently verified carbon offsets available globally" from larger vendors.
  • Native Energy. I have mixed feelings about this, as dairy is a wasteful industry (it's like trying to find alternative ways to fuel Hummers), and because milk isn't healthy anyway. (Second article on that topic.)


Criticism of carbon offsets

License to pollute

Probably the biggest criticism of carbon offsets is that it essentially gives the purchaser a "license to pollute". The buyer may think they get a free pass for their bad behavior, rather than changing that behavior.

My feeling is, for the person or business who won't or can't change their behavior, then carbon offsets are better than nothing. And even people who live a low-impact lifestyle still have some impact, and the same goes for them: buying offsets is better than not buying them.

The "license to pollute" criticism only goes so far. After all, we don't say that all knives are bad just because sometimes they're used as weapons. By the same token, I don't think it's fair to throw all carbon offsets on the garbage heap just because some people think that's all they need to do to go green. That is, the problem isn't with the product, it's with how people use it. The best way to address that is to make sure people know that carbon offsets aren't a panacea, and that the best way to prevent climate change is to use less. I don't agree that throwing the baby out with the bathwater (by eliminating carbon offsets) is a better way to go.

Businesses get money for pollution reduction measures they should have adopted on their own, anyway.

Some carbon offsets give the proceeds to businesses to get them to reduce the amount of pollution they generate. A good question is, why are we giving them this blackmail money? Why doesn't the government simply require them to produce less pollution? Why do companies like DuPont need consumers to pay for DuPont to clean up its own mess? Such offsets might be compared to a child saying, "I won't hit my brother if you give me $5." The child should be discouraged from hitting his brother even if he doesn't enjoy a payout as a result.

The answer to this one is easy: If this bothers you, don't buy this type of offset. Choose an offset vendor who's investing in renewable energy sources, like wind, solar or methane recapture. Carbon Catalog ranks vendors by the quality of their projects, and specifically lists each project a vendor invests in, so you can see for yourself where your money is going.

Something else to consider is that while it's uncomfortable to give welfare to rich companies for pollution reduction that they should be doing on their own anyway, if they won't do it on their own anyway, then buying the offsets reduces pollution. Unfair as it may be, it does get the pollution down. We can complain about the injustice all we want, but in the meantime the planet is frying....

Reforestation is dicey.

Carbon offsets which rely on tree-planting might not work, because when those trees are cut down or burn down in the future, their absorbed carbon gets released again.

No problem, simply buy offsets from a vendor which doesn't focus on tree-planting. Use Carbon Catalog to find a vendor you like.

Worthless offsets.

Some shady carbon offsets actually do nothing to reduce greenhouse emissions. Others reward businesses for conservation measures they were already going to do anyway. (more at

The answer to this one is the same as the last two: Simply don't buy this type of offset. Use Carbon Catalog to choose an offset vendor who's investing in renewable energy sources, like wind, solar or methane recapture, or in tree-planting. And make sure the vendor is certified by a reputable, independent group.

No incentive for preserving existing forests.

The president of Guyana criticized the Kyoto Protocol's carbon trading program, saying, "If you cut down trees and you plant them back you get money, if you preserve them, you don't get anything." (more from Terra Daily)

I agree, this is ridiculous. There's not much you and I can do about this. Still, while there's some disparity in the system, our purchase of carbon offsets doesn't hurt Guyana's forests. They'll still be there whether we buy our offsets or not. While an argument can be made that the system is unfair, that's not really an argument against buying offsets.

 If this convinces you that carbon offsets are worth buying, then I hope you'll actually buy some carbon offsets. :)



Wikipedia's article on carbon offsets

Last update: April 2009

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