Why are carbon offsets sometimes seen as controversial by climate activists?

Carbon offsets are a reduction in emissions of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide or methane made to compensate for emissions generated somewhere else. As far as the atmosphere is concerned, it doesn’t matter where the reduction occurs.

Offset programs can be detailed and opaque, and there are concerns about some of them delivering on their promises. 

“It’s hard to figure out which offsets really are good, and which ones are not that great,” said Alex Hanafi, the lead counsel for Environmental Defense Fund’s global climate program. “It is not an easy choice for consumers, or even well sourced companies.”

Because they are a big part of the global response to climate change, the stakes are huge.

“If these offsets are designed well, if they are created and monitored in a robust way, they can really help the climate,” said Hanafi. “If they are not, they won’t.”

There are mandatory and voluntary carbon offset programs designed to deal with everything from large scale industrial emissions that are regulated as part of a cap-and-trade program, to those that might ease the guilt of air travelers worried about their contribution to global warming when flying from, say, Boston to San Francisco.

Among the questions that arise: Whether the carbon reduction would happen anyway, without funding from the carbon offset, according to an article published by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. An example would be a project that would pay a forest owner to avoid clearcutting when they had no plans to do so.

But a forest conservation project that only pushed logging to some other location would also not result in an actual emissions offset, nor would one that lasted for a greater length of time. 

Double counting is also a potential pitfall, Hanafi said. That is where a company in one country would pay to offset a certain amount of emissions in another country, and both the other country and the company claim credit.

EDF, World Wildlife Fund, and Oeko-Institut are developing their own new carbon credit buyers’ guide to help consumers and businesses navigate carbon offsets.

Meanwhile, there are existing certification programs. Oeko-Institut and World Wildlife Fund use Gold Standard, for example, and the Natural Resources Defense Council has a useful carbon offset policy that puts saving energy first, while adding that it uses an offset program called the Green e-Climate program, which is verified by non-profit organizations such as the Climate Action Reserve or Verra

Verra also helps the California Air and Resources Board administer the carbon offset program that is part of California’s cap-and-trade system.

One of Verra’s certified projects is preserving a large tropical swamp in Indonesia; another operates a wind farm in Oklahoma.

Carbon offsets will only work if they come with a commitment by their users to actually reduce their own carbon emissions as much as possible, and to support policies that get the world to a clean energy economy by 2050, Hanafi said.

“It’s not enough to purchase offsets,” he said. “You have to make that effort to close the circle on climate policy.” 

James Bruggers

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