Should You Offset?

We’ve previously explored what make a good GHG offset, and then noted how difficult it is to determine which offsets are actually good offsets. For the average person looking to purchase carbon offsets you basically have to assume that the offset will mitigate climate change and proceed from there.

There’s no clear answer to the question of “should you offset?,” but if you’re interested in doing so we have some suggestions:

  • First, don’t be satisifed when an offset provider says its offsets have been certified by one of the offset standards or another. That doesn’t tell you much, and you may want to consider asking the offset provider some questions.

  • How do you assess the “additionality” of the offsets you sell? Why should I be confident that the reductions or sequestration in question would not have occurred but for the existence of an offset market?

  • Have the reductions or sequestration already happened, or are you selling future reductions and sequestration? If the offsets I’m buying are from the future, how far into the future could they be?

  • What are you doing to educate offset buyers about global warming and the need for global warming policy?

  • What fraction of offset revenue goes to the offset projects themselves? (Note that for some providers the number is very high, e.g. 90%).

Second, regardless of your decision don’t rely on offsets to “do your part” on climate change. If the opportunity to go carbon neutral by spending a few dollars online becomes an excuse to not think about what else you can do at home or elsewhere, or lets you feel that it is acceptable to emit more emissions than you might otherwise emit, then buying offsets is a bad idea.

Cartoon - Sinking Ship - Lower Resolution

Third, make sure to look for other ways to help tackle climate change (see the next page on this site). Without public policy, for example, individuals’ offsets cannot solve the problem. 

Fourth, remember that you get what you pay for. When someone tells you they will offset your electricity, or the emissions associated with your credit card or grocery store purchases for free, don’t assume much climate change benefit will result. While there no perfect correlation between “cost” and “quality” when it comes to carbon offsets, be prepared to pay for real offsets.

Fifth, if you choose to buy offsets, choosing offsets with clear co-benefit,s and choosing an offset provider that passes through a large majority of your purchase revenue to those projects, gives you some assurance that something worthwhile is resulting even if you can’t really be sure about the climate change benefit.

If you found this guidance useful, note that you can explore the topics we’ve covered here in a lot more detail via our free Climate Web Carbon Offsets Ebook and/or eCourse (at right)