During the gift purchasing fervor of this past holiday season, I decided that I wanted to find something unique, useful and utilitarian for my parents. Gift buying can be so difficult and frustrating, especially when shopping for grown adults who already buy whatever they need. While filled with a dose of environmental skepticism, I decided to look into carbon offsets as a potential present.

          I have been reading for many years about all the reasons that carbon offsetting is not a productive combatant against climate change. From jokes likening offsets to the indulgences given by the Catholic Church, to the idea of someone calling them selves “green” because they have offset their hummer, I can certainly understand the doubt many people have about the value of a carbon offset. Even if someone is offsetting their already carbon-streamlined life, how can one be confident that their offsets are creating new projects that are actually neutralizing emissions?

          I took my skepticism and my healthy penchant for research and came out on the other side with a newfound respect for the possibility of using carbon offsets as an important part of the efforts to shift the balance of the effects of climate change. Here are the key points that I learned:

-Make all the reductions that you can to your carbon footprint before buying offsets. Determine what can be done in regards to your home’s consumption, your transportation choices, your consumer and food purchases, etc. This is primary way you should shift your carbon footprint. Then, if you want to continue to improve, consider offsetting.

-Do your research. Learn the terms. Don’t be fooled. There is so much to be learned about this complicated field of carbon offsetting. Don’t worry, you can accomplish this in a couple hours of dedicated reading. But don’t just buy from the first offsetting site that catches your eye with its pretty graphic design. Be sure to check out the links at the bottom of this article, especially “The Consumer’s Guide to Retail Carbon Offset Providers” PDF. They will provide a diving board into the subject.

-Find out how much of the offset goes to actual projects. I found that this varied greatly. In the non-profits I examined it was anywhere form 75-93%. The for-profit companies are not made to disclose their contributions, which makes it very difficult as a consumer to decide how your offset money is really being allocated.

-Determine the kinds of projects that are initiated. Some efforts are better than others. For example, you might think that planting trees is a great balancing project, but the true effect of the trees planted won’t be seen for 40 or 50 years, if the trees aren’t cut down before then. Better projects are ones that capture methane gas, or install wind or solar energy. Some organizations couple carbon offset projects with sustainable international development. Search these out if this aligns with your interests.

-Be sure that the projects are occurring because of the offset purchases, and would not happen otherwise. In the offset world, this is called additionality. With this guarantee, you can be more confident that the money that you put into the offset is actually creating a marked difference in the balance of carbon.

-Ensure the organization is certified by third-party standards. At this time, there are a number of different certification standards. You have to do your research about this, too. The best organizations and businesses are certified by multiple different standards and receive yearly audits to prove their continued compliance.

          Now that I have come to terms with the idea that carbon offsets are not meant to compensate for a gluttonous lifestyle, I find myself excited about the potential for carbon offsetting as one of the many important facets in the fight against the rapidly changing climate. I live a sustainability conscious life already, so to offset my yearly carbon would cost me around $250. Why not make that contribution? I see it as a direct donation to creating the kinds of projects that I want to support in this world.

          As for my parents, they were delighted by my gift of offsetting all the driving that they did in 2010. This offset cost $250, the same as my whole footprint! This was certainly an interesting point to bring up with them. It gave us a forum to discuss their energy usage and to acknowledge that there is more that they can do to reduce their footprint. I think that this present expanded my parent’s perspective on the world, and their own place in it, than any fancy kitchen tool or electronic gadget could. What a wonderful and useful gift that is!



The Consumer's Guide to Retail Carbon Offset Providers


The Seattle Times: How to find the best carbon offsets


The New York Times: Carbon-Neutral is Hip, But is it Green?


Forum for the Future: Want to accelerate reductions in your carbon ...


Gold Standard: Premium Carbon Credits


Grist: A guide to offsetting your carbon emissions


Go Green Travel: Best Carbon Offset Companies 


Go Green Travel: 12 Things you Need to Know About Carbon Offsets

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Sue Lebeck 

  Cool Block Platform Director

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