Carbon offsets are everywhere these days. You might see them in little disclaimers on your favorite sneaker brand’s site, or you can buy them to help offset your next cross-country flight. They may be ubiquitous, but what really are carbon offsets and what should you know before buying into neutralizing your carbon footprint?

Let’s get into it! Carbon offsets are tradable certificates linked to activities that lower the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Carbon offset projects can be vastly different, but they all usually rely on nature-based solutions such as planting trees or tech like carbon capture and storage (CCS). Ultimately, think of the certificates as offsetting the buyer’s CO2 emissions with an equal amount of CO2 reductions somewhere else. 

Every credit bought stands for one metric ton of CO2 being removed from the atmosphere—that’s equal to driving 2,513 miles in a gas-powered car. And while we’re talking numbers, there are a handful of handy calculators out there like this one from Terrapass, that can help you calculate a carbon offset proportional to specific events on top of regular offsets. 

This all sounds well and good but…maybe even a little too good? How does carbon offsetting do when it comes to follow through? At the moment, while carbon offsetting may have some impact in reducing our footprint, the results aren’t exactly what we signed up…or rather, paid for. Without regulations and guidelines in place, it’s hard to track a credit’s impact. 

A pair of studies published in 2019 and 2021 examined California’s forest offset programs and found it likely overstated total emission reductions by a whopping 80 percent. A handful of reports have been published about companies selling credits to save trees that were never intended to be cut down. And on top of it all, if a fire were to burn down trees set aside for carbon offsets, then money used could be wasted, and the carbon we were intending to remove sticks around. In fact, there are sources that believe carbon offset programs may do more harm than good.

So…where do we go from here? Fortunately, there are several organizations out there helping set best practices, transparency, and traceability, like The Oxford Offsetting Principles. And below these standard-setting groups are retail certification programs, like Green-e Climate, that help individuals identify reliable carbon offset sellers. At the end of the day, carbon credits can be an effective tool to reduce emissions with a few caveats. The space needs stronger guidelines and before buying into them it’s worth some research into how the money is being spent. It must also come hand-in-hand with reducing our reliance on greenhouse gasses in order to make a real impact.

If you’d like to learn more about CCS, be sure to check out this video or this one.

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