climate change

What’s the best way to offset carbon emissions?

A couple of months ago I expressed my interest in offsetting the remain carbon emissions that I cannot cut myself. I’ve cut my own carbon footprint down as much as I can, but to make my household carbon neutral, I need a little help. So what’s the best way to do that?

Around five years ago there was a surge of interest in climate change, and carbon offsetting schemes starting popping up like mushrooms. The market has settled a little in the interval. Some of those schemes have folded, others have been shown to be fraudulent, and some have established themselves as credible enterprises. That makes it easier to choose a scheme with confidence, but there are still lots of options to navigate.

To help me choose, I’ve looked at the kinds of offsets available, the kinds of groups offering them, and the credibility of their claims.

What kinds of offsets are there?

  • The first offsets available were forestry based. They are hard to certify and not as common today, but you can still get them, planting trees in developing countries or setting aside woodland to protect it from logging. Climate Stewards plants useful trees such as the fibre-rich Kapok in Ghana.
  • Most schemes are now based around energy efficiency or renewable energy. Efficiency schemes are often development oriented, such as supplying fuel-efficient and smoke-free cookstoves in developing countries, providing energy-saving bulbs, or installing efficient water pumps.
  • Renewable energy projects include solar lanterns, solar PV, and funding wind farms. Many also run biomass projects, such as using crop residues to generate electricity, processing cow dung into fuel, or creating biogas from waste. AtmosFair runs a plant in Bolivia that burns Brazil nut shells for power. TerraPass funds projects to capture methane in abandoned coal mines, among other things.
  • An alternative way to cut carbon is to buy up carbon credits and retire them. The Pure Trust buys UN CDM certificates and takes them out of circulation, for example. Others use credits from the EU carbon trading scheme.

Who runs offset schemes?

  • Most offset schemes are run as businesses. Agcert describes itself as a company that “produces and sells greenhouse gas reductions”, and the Carbon Neutral Company says it is a “provider of carbon reduction solutions”. Climate Care was an early pioneer of offsets and grew large enough for JP Morgan to buy them out (they bought themselves back last year). These bigger companies often serve as offset brokers, sourcing credits for companies who want to include offsets in their products or services.
  • Other offset schemes were established as social enterprises, often by entrepreneurs with environmental targets in mind rather than profits. is a leading US offset provider and a non-profit. So is AtmosFair, which was set up by a consortium of German eco-travel agencies. Non-profit energy company Ebico runs the EquiClimate project.
  • There are also campaigns, such as the Paradigm Project, which provides stoves.  Target Neutral is a campaign run as a non-profit subsidiary of BP, which smacks of Greenwash to me.
  • Some charities run their own offset schemes. Climate Stewards is run by the conservation group Arocha. Australia’s Carbon Neutral company was set up by the tree-planting charity Men of the Trees, and in the UK the Woodland Trust runs a scheme.

How can you tell if a scheme is genuine?

  • The Voluntary Gold Standard was set up by WWF in 2003 and approves efficiency and renewable energy projects. All VGS projects have to demonstrate value to the local community as well as a real carbon saving.
  • The Verified Carbon Standard is similar. According to The Rough Guide to Green Living, it was set up to open the market to smaller and more innovative projects that wouldn’t otherwise be able to certify their carbon reductions.
  • The UN’s Clean Development Mechanism certifies carbon cutting projects in developing countries, so that certificates for the carbon savings can be sold to governments to help them meet their Kyoto obligations.
  • Those are the big three, but there are others, there’s the Climate, Community and Biodiversity Alliance, which provides agreed standards rather than verifying offsets. There’s the Chicago Climate Exchange standard, the Voluntary Offset Standard, VER+ and something called Plan Vivo. In other words, it’s a bit of a tangle.
  • To try and bring some order to these multiple standards, the UK government set up its own certifying body. Unfortunately, instead of uniting the market, it just spawned another alternative: the Quality Assurance Scheme for Carbon Offsetting. The government pulled the plug on it, and it’s now run by the four companies that had been certified.

So what should you get?

That’s a bunch of information about offsets, and despite having looked into it in considerable detail, I can’t see an obvious standout. It’s a crowded market, and there are a couple of hundred retailers to choose from. But here’s how I’m narrowing it down for myself:

I’d much rather support a scheme that has benefits for people and wildlife rather than a paper-based credits approach, even though the latter is easier to certify. There are plenty of projects that support appropriate technology solutions, or leap-frog communities past fossil fuels and into renewable technologies. Likewise, I’d prefer to support a non-profit or a social enterprise than one of the big offsets brokers or carbon corporates.

Obviously it’s important to check if offset schemes are verifying their projects with a third party. You’d be surprised how many don’t, or if you read the FAQ, you find they are still applying or intend to apply to one of the schemes. Unfortunately, those that do certify their offsets aren’t necessarily delivering the goods either. None of the certifying groups are genuinely dysfunctional, (with the possible exception of the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism) but none of them are perfect either. There is a huge market for carbon credits, and there is pressure to create new offsets and get projects certified quickly and at ever-bigger scales. In the absence of an agreed global standard, I’d recommend picking a smaller provider that you have confidence in – perhaps one that runs its own projects like Climate Stewards or the Paradigm Project.

Then again, I’m not obsessive about paying for an exact quantity of carbon. I know roughly what my carbon footprint is, and I’d like to be carbon positive. But I don’t need precise figures, so I’m not sure that I need an offsets company at all. At the moment, I’m considering making two donations, one to SolarAid and one to TreeAid. They both do things that offset projects do, but they don’t sell them as offsets. They just get on with it because they’re good things to do.

But what do you think? Is a dedicated offsets company a better idea? Or should I just take this reader up on his offer and sponsor a few trees on his land in Tuscany?

1 comment

  1. I.m obviously biased on this one… ;). You have put this idea in my head though and I will put a blog post out to this effect in the next couple of days, detailing what I’m planning to plant and ask if anyone wants to come in on that. Thanks for the mention anyway, Jeremy.

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