One of the easiest ways to have a measurable impact in the fight against climate change is to invest in projects that draw down carbon from the atmosphere. It’s simple: Climate change is caused by the increased concentration of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. The obvious solution: take CO2 out of the atmosphere and/or prevent CO2 from entering the atmosphere in the first place.
This is what Carbon Offsetting is all about. You emit CO2, e.g. by taking a hot shower, and then you pay someone else to take CO2 out of the atmosphere for you, e.g. by planting a tree.
Prefer listening? Check out Episode 6 of the How to Make a Difference podcast, where we talk in detail about pros and cons of carbon offsetting.
If the amount of CO2 emitted to heat the water is the same as the amount of CO2 absorbed by the tree you financed, your hot shower is “carbon neutral”.
Of course, reality is a bit more complicated than that.
The case for carbon offsetting
One of the most common counter arguments against the concept of carbon offsetting is that it could encourage people or companies to just “pay off their conscience” and keep emitting large amounts of CO2 rather than changing their destructive lifestyle habits or the way business is done.
This line of arguing might have been true 30 years ago. Maybe if we had reduced our emissions to the minimum level in the past, we might have been able to prevent the worst effects of climate change. By now, we are soooo far along the path of destruction that there simply is no alternative to offsetting. Even if all countries, all companies, all organizations, and all people on our planet were suddenly becoming super-efficient in how they use their resources (and let’s be real – if it was that easy: it would have happened already) there will almost certainly be a remaining carbon footprint. However, we need to get to 0 emissions. Fast. The only way to get there quickly is via carbon offsetting.
Obviously, many other things need to happen in the fight against climate change: we need to drastically reduce our emissions, we need more renewable energy, we need the right policies, a new economic system, etc. However, this type of change – while crucial – is also excruciatingly slow. If you care about climate change: Offsetting your footprint is a really simple and effective tool that has an immediate positive impact. You can even go a step further: go carbon negative. By offsetting more emissions than you caused, your “emissions” are “negative” meaning that you are actively contributing to less CO2 in the atmosphere and a lower temperature of the planet.
Think of it this way: If you care about animals you can donate to charities like the world wildlife fund. If you care about ocean plastic you can donate to charities that remove plastic from the ocean. If you care about climate change you can donate to organizations that remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Which is what offsetting projects are all about.
Quick guide through the carbon jungle
There are many ways how carbon offsets (also called carbon credits) are generated. Some classics are planting trees, renewable energy projects, or installing solar cookers for families that would otherwise use coal to prepare meals. The main question is: do these methods really work?
This has been heavily discussed in recent years. E.g.: What if the tree I financed burns in a wildfire? As a result of these discussions, a number of standards have been established to ensure the quality of the offsets. One of the most common criteria is “additionality”. Projects have to prove that they have an additional effect, compared to what would have happened anyways (e.g. because it’s required by law, or financially profitable). E.g. if a country requires methane capture at landfill sites by law, you cannot sell carbon offsets for capturing methane at those landfills.
One of the strictest standards for CO2 offsetting is the Gold Standard. On top of criteria like “additionality”, every project has to show that it contributes to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in more than one way. E.g. the project contributes to gender equality or lifts a community out of poverty on top of its climate benefit.
However, even standards cannot always ensure the effectiveness of carbon offsets. As Anja Kollmuss, a climate expert who has researched carbon markets for more than 20 years, explained in Episode 6 of the How to Make a Difference podcast carbon offsets are plagued by the following issues:
- Double Counting: When you purchase an offset from a different country, the emissions reductions are counted twice: one by you and once by that country. This is a flaw in how international offsets are set up and requires a political solution. In the meantime: if you are aiming for true carbon neutrality, you should buy offsets from a project situated in the same country as yourself – or accept that rather than becoming carbon neutral yourself you are helping another country to reduce their emissions (which is a good thing).
- Questionable Additionality: Additionality is difficult to prove and even Standards fail frequently at ensuring Additionality. If you’re interested in exploring this topic in more detail – check out Anja Kollmuss’ blog post: Understanding Carbon Offsets.
- Unclear Permanence: Not all carbon capture is permanent. The most simple example is tree planting. You might pay for trees to be planted that absorb CO2 for a while. However, if those trees burn down in a wildfire, that CO2 is reemitted to the atmosphere. Obviously, tree planting is one of the most important climate solutions – but it’s a risky one, if you’re using this to “offset” your own emissions.
Carbon drawdown rather than carbon offsetting
In Episode 6 of the How to Make a Difference podcast, we speak with Lambert Schneider, the research coordinator for international climate policy at the Öko-Institut and a member and the former chair of the UNFCCC CDM executive board. He explains that if you want to do something good for the climate buying carbon credits can still be a good thing.
There are projects that are additional. And permanent. Seeing the climate emergency we are in, we need every tool in the toolbox to reduce the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. Buying carbon credits is one of those tools. However, you should think of it less as an “offset” of your own emissions and rather as a way to draw down carbon from the atmosphere. And the more we do it, the better.
Where can I buy trustworthy carbon credits?
If you type “carbon offset” or “carbon credits” into your search engine you will find a myriad of offers. Understanding which ones are the most likely to be additional or permanent can be somewhat of a nightmare.
If you would like to do your own research, the paper What makes a high-quality carbon credit? co-authored by the World Wildlife Fund, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Öko-Institut will be a helpful starting point
If you prefer to keep it simple – we have researched this topic extensively and have three recommendations for you:
We introduce Climeworks in Episode 7 of the How to Make a Difference podcast. Check it out!
Climeworks capture carbon dioxide directly from the air through a machine-based solution. They use huge fans to push air through filters, which in turn capture the carbon dioxide out of the air. Then they mix “the carbon dioxide with water and pump[..] it deep underground. Through natural mineralization, the carbon dioxide reacts with the basalt rock and turns into stone within a few years.” (see Climeworks – CO2 removal)
This solution is both permanent and additional. For one stone is a pretty permanent way to fix carbon (permanence) and furthermore, since their technology is still very expensive this would not happen unless people are willing to pay them money for it (additionality).
They offer subscriptions so all you have to do is go there once, pick your plan and enable the removal of carbon from the atmosphere. For example:
For 7 Euro per month you could help remove 85 kg of CO2 from the atmosphere per year: Climeworks subscription
Check out Episode 7 of the How to Make a Difference podcast, where we introduce Climeworks.
We interview Aldyen Donnelly, Director of Carbon economics at Nori in Episode 8 of the How to Make a Difference podcast. Check it out!
Nori is building a voluntary marketplace, based on blockchain technology, so that carbon removal suppliers can connect directly with buyers.
The first type of project Nori is focussing on is agricultural projects that can store carbon dioxide in soils. Soils have a huge potential to store carbon. While industrial farming practises can lead to soil degradation, Nori helps farmers to finance more regenerative farming practices that are better for the environment, restore soil health and most importantly store CO2.
Nori has a different and maybe controversial approach to additionality and permanence – however we like their transparency on these issues. In contrast to conventional offset wisdom they allow projects onto their marketplace that are profitable without selling offsets, as long as they can prove that carbon is being removed from the atmosphere. In terms of permanence: they hold projects accountable for 10 years.
1 ton of CO2 currently costs about 17 USD / ton: Nori Carbon Removal Marketplace
Check out Episode 8 of the How to Make a Difference podcast, where we interview Aldyen Donnelly, Director of Carbon economics at Nori.
We introduce Atmosfair in Episode 9 of the How to Make a Difference podcast. Check it out!
Atmosfair is a German NGO and is very selective in the offsets they offer. They only add projects to their portfolio that follow the highest standards – like the Gold Standard. Atmosfair is also very transparent and if you want to explore the topic further, check out their website. The neat thing about Atmosfair is that they enable monthly, quarterly, and yearly subscriptions.
It currently costs 23 Euro / ton of CO2.
Check out Episode 9 of the How to Make a Difference podcast, where we introduce Atmosfair.
How many carbon offsets should I buy?
The simple answer is: as many as fit your budget. Every carbon credit you buy is a step towards a cooler future. A good starting point might be your national average emission, i.e. depending on your country 1-2 tons per month.
Call to action
Having an impact can be easy. In particular with the subscription models: you set them up once and then you’re sure to have a positive impact even when you’re too busy to think about it. Sign up now!
Let us know what you think! What other topics are on your mind? What other offsetting organizations would you recommend? We welcome your questions and your feedback.