The Wrong Way to do Carbon Offsets – and the Right Way to do Them

What do most large corporations, some event organizers, and frequent travelers have in common? Big carbon footprints. And some of them like to balance out those big footprints by investing in carbon offsets. Which is good… if that’s not all they’re doing to limit their environmental impact.

This week, we’re looking at carbon offsets and how to make sure they are useful. 


It’s simple: carbon offsets cancel out the emissions in one place, with emission-reducing actions in another. For example, if you fly a lot for work, and you want to mitigate the impact that all of those plane rides have on the environment, you can invest in a carbon offset which would finance an environmentally-beneficial project, like reforestation and forest conservation, energy efficiency improvements, or renewable energy technologies, to name a few (check these out).  

It’s a really great solution. A solution, not the solution. You see, the problem comes when people or companies utilize carbon offsets without investigating viable alternatives to travelling so much, or using so much energy, for example. Or, if they can’t get around all that travelling and energy consumption, they don’t look into how they can reduce their carbon footprints elsewhere. They simply rely on carbon offsets to do all their sustainable work. Why is this a problem?


Buying Carbon Offsets is Better than Doing Nothing, but it’s Not Enough 

Carbon offset projects will never be enough to curb emissions growth if we continue to consume as much as we do. They just end up giving polluters incentive to carry on polluting, all the while making themselves look good to their customers (enter greenwashing).  


‘UN Environment supports carbon offsets as a temporary measure,’ says Niklas Hagelberg. ‘However, it is not a silver bullet, and the danger is that it can lead to complacency.’ 



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In addition to being used in conjunction with other emission reduction measures, carbon offsets must:   

– Be additional. What we mean by that is, a carbon offset must lead to a positive change that would not have occurred without someone’s investment. So, if a tree was going to be planted anyway, its primary purpose wasn’t to reduce emissions, because it was an existing project that was going to happen anyway. The project must reduce emissions that would not have been reduced otherwise.  

– Be permanent. To have the biggest impact, the project funded should continue well into the future. For example, if solar panels are installed this year, they should not be removed at any stage. If you’re funding a reforestation project, you have to make sure that those trees aren’t destroyed (fire) or removed (logging).  

– Not simply ‘move’ the problem elsewhere. For example, if a project protects an area of the forest from being cut down, are those loggers just going to move their operation to another area nearby, rendering the project pointless?


We are all for carbon offsets. They offer everyone the opportunity to give back what they take from the environment. But, it should be about more than that.

We must start to shift from merely balancing out and doing less harm, to actually making a positive impact. So, instead of just buying carbon offsets, we should look at ways to limit our emissions in the first place.

Try this app, or this one, to help you do just that. Remember, carbon offsets are not a get-out-of-jail-free card.

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