Carbon Offsets: a Primer

“Carbon offsetting”. What exactly is it?

When a product is manufactured, it often involves the production of carbon dioxide, which contributes to the greenhouse effect. A responsible company makes amends by engaging in activities that reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide – “offsetting” the CO2 they have released.

So it’s not about reducing emissions in the first place?

That’s correct. A carbon offset is about compensating for them. The best way to use a carbon offset is to reduce emissions in the future as well as compensate for those in the present – dealing not just with the effects, but the causes as well.

What methods are used?

There are hundreds, undertaken through organizations such as Carbonfund – from using renewable energy resources to destroying existing pollutants such as the fluorocarbons that have wreaked such havoc with our ozone layer. But most famously, it’s about tree planting. Trees trap carbon and produce oxygen – they’re carbon-offsetting machines. But they take time to grow – so planting a tree does not immediately offset emissions. (Nothing beats prevention).

So it’s Greenwashing?

Not necessarily – but everyone should remain healthily skeptical. As the Financial Times reported last year, there are still many companies that are failing to take carbon offsetting seriously and responsibly….sometimes unintentionally, and sometimes not.

Here’s what we can do. When we’re met with this piece of ambiguous, problematic jargon, we need to ask the two most important questions …

How are the carbon emissions offset?

And why were they produced in the first place?

Mike Sowden

Mike Sowden is a freelance writer based in the north of England, obsessed with travel, storytelling and terrifyingly strong coffee. He has written for online & offline publications including Mashable, Matador Network and the San Francisco Chronicle, and his work has been linked to by Lonely Planet, World Hum and Lifehacker. If all the world is a stage, he keeps tripping over scenery & getting tangled in the curtain - but he's just fine with that.