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Buy Credible Carbon Offsets

Planting trees is just one way to offset carbon. Photo by Mary Reed.

While those who seek to reduce their carbon footprint do so with the best of intentions, there is growing concern that some carbon offsets – payment for projects that reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – are a scam or aren’t actually balancing out emissions. With a little investigation, however, you can be sure your investment is shrinking the size of your carbon impact.

“We believe that reducing your footprint is the first and necessary step,” says Zoe Kant, a carbon finance specialist with The Nature Conservancy. When exhausting all other options to reduce your carbon footprint still isn’t enough, a final option is offsets. “It’s extremely important that those carbon offsets be credible, otherwise your money is not leading to a reduction of carbon or greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,” Kant says.

Here are some deal makers and breakers when it comes to choosing credible carbon offsets:

Additionality. The goal of carbon offsets is to support new, or additional, projects – that is, projects made possible by your carbon credit dollars, such as renewable energy development. You don’t want to pay for projects that would happen even without your carbon offsets.

Monitoring mechanisms. If greenhouse gas emission reductions are not being measured or monitored, there’s reason to be suspicious. The more information, the better, according to Kant.

Leakage. There’s a difference between reducing emissions and shifting them elsewhere. “The buzzword for that in the carbon world is ‘leakage,’” Kant says. “You blow up a balloon and then you squeeze part of it, and then basically another part of the balloon pops out.”

Planting trees to capture carbon is shifting emissions if the entity previously using the land moves and deforests a new plot of land to continue its business; new trees are being planted at the expense of forest somewhere else. If leakage cannot be prevented, the carbon emissions shifted elsewhere should be tracked and deducted from the carbon offsets offered.

Backup plans. Especially in the arena of carbon capture, it’s important to check if there are preventive measures in place in the event that the carbon risks being released back into the atmosphere. For example, reforestation credits run the risk that the trees used to absorb carbon dioxide might not remain a forest forever. “The issue here is having safeguards to make sure that that carbon stays in the trees,” Kant says. “If the forest burns down or the land is converted to another use later on, that carbon that was stored in the trees goes back into atmosphere.”

Transparency. A carbon offset program that is open about measuring and monitoring emissions, makes sure carbon isn’t re-emitted into the atmosphere and provides information that backs up its claims has credibility. “If it’s just simply a little marketing webpage that doesn’t have any information to back up the claims, I wouldn’t go with a program like that,” Kant says.

Credible carbon offset programs won’t bury information where people can’t find it, so if your casual dig for facts turns into a full-blown excavation, then take your business elsewhere.

Verification. There are independent, third-party verification programs that can authenticate the legitimacy and credibility of carbon offsets. Voluntary Carbon Standard provides verification for providers, and The Environmental Defense Fund and Carbon Catalog provide a list of projects they deem credible.

Cathy Wilson writes the Green With Envy column for The Post, a student-run daily newspaper serving Ohio University.