I Quit Waste: Can You Really Offset Your Carbon Emissions?

5 Mins Read

Welcome to our new Monthly Column I Quit Waste with Malaysia-based sustainability expert and waste activist Smita J. In each issue, she will asks the big questions and tackle complex environmental issues around the choices we make every day. In her first column, she looks deeper into carbon offsetting.

Unless you have been living under the proverbial rock, you’ve probably caught on that over the past few decades, human activities have drastically increased the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, trapping heat and leading to what is known as global warming. While reducing carbon emissions must take first priority, we all create carbon emissions in some form or another and many people have taken to “offsetting” their carbon footprint in order to alleviate their burden on the planet. But what does it entail? And is it actually effective?

Before you can offset your personal carbon footprint, you need to figure out what it is. There are several useful tools available online that allow you to calculate your individual carbon and ecological footprint to a fair degree of accuracy. I like Global Footprint Calculator and Carbon Footprint. These tools suggest a baseline emissions limit and allow you to see where you stand in comparison.

As individuals, we can counter our carbon emissions by adapting our daily habits and reduce regular activities that account for a high carbon footprint. This includes eating less meat, taking more public transport, flying less, buying local, travelling local and extending the life of our material things. This remains the most important way to combat carbon emissions successfully at the individual level.

But over the past decade or so, offsetting, aka counteracting our carbon emissions by participating (usually financially) in projects that actively take away carbon from the atmosphere, has become another way to reduce carbon footprints, especially for people who travel a lot.

The principle is simple enough: give emissions a financial value- put a dollar value on the per unit emission, which allows you to pay for the extra emissions you generate. But where exactly is the money going to? And can we really pay our way out of a high emission lifestyle? There are a few key points to consider.

Offsetting Is Voluntary

Offsetting is a voluntary (and relatively new) practice. There is no governmental, regulatory or financial incentive for individuals to offset their emissions and their is no way to track who is offsetting. Further, most people are not aware of the need for offsetting, how to measure their carbon footprint and how to offset their emissions.

Potential For Scams is High

The potential for bad actors amongst emissions project is fairly high, mostly due to the lack of accountability. To demonstrate integrity and to help individuals looking to offset avoid scams, offset projects should adhere to criteria set out by standards like the Verified Carbon Standard and Gold Standard and individuals should choose projects that are

Offset Projects Are Difficult To Measure

Offset projects should have their baseline emissions clearly and realistically measured and stated, and the project should bring additionality and permanence. This means the project should be above and beyond what already should be there, and demonstrate longevity.

For example, for a reforestation project an assessment on conservation values should be done on the area of interest, with the aim of initially restoring the area to the expected value. The offset project should go beyond that expected (target) value to satisfy additionality.

Permanence should ensure the project is established long enough that the net effect is positive. An offset with a reforestation, afforestation or agroforestry project can be hard to project long term because the gains are only realised when the trees are fully grown. There is no guarantee that the trees will even survive long term (i.e, measures must be put in place to understand how this will be ensured).

The Carbon Offset Market is Run By Developed Countries

Most (if not all) carbon offsetting is done through carbon traders, all based in developed countries that are in financially better positions to go “carbon neutral” by offsetting. Many nations use carbon offsetting as a way to avoid address systemic issues in their own economies that are intensively carbon polluting. Further, some activists see carbon offsetting as just another way for the dominant Global North to economically ‘colonize’ developing nations by appropriating land and resources and they question the benefits for those nations. While some of the offset projects are located in Asia, offsetting is not a common practice culturally speaking. In fact, it does not really exist at all.

There Over 100 Ways To Offset Emissions

Offset projects are varied: they can range from tree planting, investing in renewable energy (wind, solar, biogas) or even implement efficient cookstoves. Projects can be anywhere in the world.

A good reference to enable our individual actions is Project Drawdown, a comprehensive study of at least 100 solutions that can be implemented to reduce the amount of carbon currently in the atmosphere. Emission reductions and the corresponding dollar values of loss and gains are clearly quantified on a global scale and presented. The solutions range from economic empowerment of women so that they are less vulnerable to forced marriage and bad family planning, household recycling (reusing waste), composting, electric mass transport vehicles, teleconferencing and refrigeration management, to name a few.

How I Offset My Emissions

I have three main avenues to offset what I feel is an excessive amount of air travel:

1) I do carbon offsets through MyClimate, they are Swiss-based, have an offset calculator and have the list of projects all over the world they support through the offset income.

2) I donate to Pollinate Group, they do not do direct offsets. They are an Australian social enterprise operating in India to teach micro-financing to very disadvantaged communities through the selling of simple renewable energy solutions like solar lamps and individual solar panels in their community (so that they don’t use stuff like kerosene for their energy needs). What I like about them is their information clearly shows how much fossil fuels they have saved through selling their products, how much emissions are saved, how many people have been reached and how much the local economy has improved through this micro-financing model.

3) I volunteer in Marine Conservation with TRACC Borneo (marine conservation) and Reef Check Malaysia (reef surveying). Again the impact on carbon specifically can’t be measured, but it’s improving eco-system services (which does not have a clear dollar value at the moment).

In Conclusion

Offsetting is not a blanket solution. Like most things, it’s a complex issue with no easy wins. To answer the original question: can you truly offset your emissions? Yes, absolutely! If you measure your footprint accurately, and if you do your homework and choose projects that hold themselves accountable and are transparent about their gains over the short and longterm, your offsetting can be impactful! That being said, offsetting should not be looked at as a way to avoid changing our daily carbon-heavy habits like reducing meat consumption, buying fewer things and adopting a reuse/low-waste mindset.


Image courtesy of Smita J: rainforests in central Sabah, North Borneo with the early morning mist.

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