Why I Don’t Buy Carbon Offsets and Why You Shouldn’t Either

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How to go green in the best way is a question many serious-minded people ask themselves. Green living habits and environmentally friendly practices are worthwhile and should be encouraged.

Finding ways to reduce, reuse, and recycle are the cornerstones of a greener lifestyle, as is attempting to repair any damage done to the environment by our lifestyles. It is the latter goal that has given rise to the proliferation of carbon offsets.

Carbon offsets have become part of the current green lingo. In broadest terms, a carbon offset is a payment made to compensate for carbon emissions. In principle, this payment is directed toward an action or technology that precisely reverses the carbon emissions caused by something done by an individual. For example, a 500-mile flight on a Boeing 737 airplane produces a relatively well-defined  amount of emissions. Divide that amount by the number of passengers, and you can calculate the greenhouse gas contribution by each individual on that plane.

A carbon offset is effectively a self-imposed tax that you can choose to pay to make up for the calculated environmental damage caused by your actions.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of sellers of these carbon offset taxes, and what these different sellers do with your money to offset your carbon emissions is not always clear. Nor is it possible to know that the claimed actions (for example, the planting of a certain number of trees) are actually taken. How would you, as an individual, really know what was done with your voluntarily-paid tax money?

Since the market for carbon offsets is unregulated and verification and monitoring is relatively non-existent, I don’t buy carbon offsets. I think people can make a bigger and more beneficial impact by directing their money toward eco-friendly actions that they can personally control.

Here is what I do. I go to a site with a carbon footprint calculator (there are many, but here is one example) and calculate my annual carbon footprint cost. The calculator asks you for your costs for electricity and gas, and then asks a series of questions about your driving habits, travel, and lifestyle. My annual “tax” came out at $746 to purchase a “certified emission reduction,” which I take at face value to be a good-faith effort to exactly reverse the emissions that were calculated to have been caused by me. There are probably some processing costs involved, and the people organizing all the processing and certification have to be paid, so a healthy fraction of the amount calculated presumably goes to cover this type of overhead expense. That leaves some smaller amount to actually be used for my carbon offset.

But then, rather than sending in my money to buy the offset, I ask myself the following question: “What can I spend that money on directly that will reduce my carbon footprint?”

There are a number of good options. For example, $750 per year can pay for a good hybrid automobile that will reduce my emissions and save me money on gasoline. I could also pay for insulation in my home to make the heating and cooling more efficient. I could buy an EnergyStar-rated refrigerator that would save on electricity. Or I could plant trees in my yard or elsewhere.

For the record, I used the money toward paying for solar panels on my home, which has reduced my carbon footprint by an estimated 10.4 tons over the past year and reduced my electric bill by nearly $3000.

I recommend that everyone consider what can be done directly with their own calculated carbon offset tax to reduce their carbon footprint. By investing that amount in energy-efficient appliances, cars, or equipment, you can create an annual, continuing reduction in your carbon footprint and recoup some of that expense by virtue of the energy savings.

Now that is a tax worth paying.

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February 2011
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