Awareness of the reality and the severity of climate change is on the rise. More and more people are coming to terms with the facts that the planet is warming, humans are responsible, and there is very little time left for us to address it. That has plenty of people looking for answers on how they can shrink their carbon footprints and ease the burden on the planet we all helped cause.
One increasingly popular solution is purchasing carbon offsets. The concept is pretty simple: You create carbon emissions by driving your car, traveling by plane, eating lots of meat, or even keeping your lights on — and you can counteract, or offset, those emissions by paying to reduce or sequester carbon elsewhere. This is often done by donating to offset projects that plant trees in a growing forest; the trees naturally remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it in their trunks.
Many major corporations use carbon offsets as a tool to decrease their overall carbon footprints, planting millions of trees that can suck up some of the carbon emissions created by their polluting. More recently, this mitigation method has trickled down to individuals. In the last few years, several apps focusing on carbon offsets for individual consumers have hit the market. Not only does this allow anyone to wipe out their contributions to climate change — at least theoretically — but it also does so with the tantalizing promise that you don't have to change anything about your lifestyle to do it.
Most of these tools work similarly: They help you calculate your carbon footprint based on your daily activities or notable events that may produce excess emissions, then they offer you the ability to offset any contribution to climate change by funding emissions-reducing projects.
But while buying carbon offsets sounds appealing, it's not quite that easy. There are lots of questions about the effectiveness of carbon offsets — from a lack of transparency around these programs' execution, to a lack of certainty that simply offsetting our actions is enough to counteract climate change.
Do I need to shrink my carbon footprint in the first place?
The short answer here is yes. (If you're bothering to ask, you need to catch up on your reading.) But before trying to offset your emissions, it's worth figuring out just how big your carbon footprint even is. There are tools, from organizations like The Nature Conservancy or the United Nations, that can help you figure it out — but if you want to pencil yourself in as the average American, assume you have a carbon footprint of about 16 tons of emissions per year. That's much higher than the global average, which is around 4 tons per year, and significantly higher than the 2 tons per year the average individual's impact should be by 2050, per a goal set by the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Some of that impact is likely out of your control. For example, if your utility provider doesn't use renewable energy and has a monopoly in your region, there's really not much you can do to change that. But it's definitely worth assessing your lifestyle to find some other ways you can lessen your overall impact on the planet. (And hey, Mic can help with that! Check out our guides to what going meat-free would look like, how to start a worm compost no matter the size of your kitchen, and how to do your laundry in a more eco-conscious way.)
Okay. Then I would like a carbon offset, please!
For the average American, purchasing a carbon offset would mean planting about 1,025 trees, according to Saving Nature — which many carbon offset apps help facilitate. But the specifics of how that offset comes to fruition vary depending on which offset app you choose.
Some apps, like Offcents, offer a pay-as-you-go plan, following your behaviors based on things like location data and other tracking information to generate an estimated carbon footprint that you'll offset as you go. Others like Capture operate on a credit system, asking you to pay a set amount for a certain offset size — say, $20 for 3,000 pounds of carbon emission removal. Or you can choose a subscription model like Klima offers, in which case you'll pay a monthly fee determined based on your estimated emissions. The average American is probably looking at something around $15 to $25 per month for a carbon offset program.
Is a carbon offset actually enough?
Here's the thing with carbon offsets: There's a lot of money to be had in offering to help people counteract their environmental impact, but there's also very little oversight in place to make sure the organizations selling these offsets are actually following through. "There are many questions about how carbon offsets and related biodiversity offsets are calculated," Katie Sandwell, a senior project officer with the Transnational Institute's Agrarian Environmental Justice Program, tells Mic. "Oversight is limited, methodologies for estimating offsets are contested, and corporations selling offsets for profit have an interest in over-stating the ecological gains that result from them."
Last year, REDD+, one of the biggest carbon offset initiatives in the world, came under fire by researchers who found that the positive effects of REDD+'s emissions reduction plan had been significantly overstated — and that program had been negotiated and enforced by the United Nations. Many other offset programs work with third-party verifiers, and there is a lot of ambiguity regarding how standards are set and enforced. Even operating under the assumption that these groups have the best of intentions, they may or may not actually be equipped to actually follow through on the promises for carbon reduction.
The Climate Markets and Investment Association (CMIA), The International Carbon Reduction and Offset Alliance (ICROA), and International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) — three of the largest trade groups developed around the mission of carbon reduction — issued a joint statement in 2014 cautioning consumers against using carbon offsets "unless they are experienced enough and knowledgeable enough to fully understand the significant risks they face by doing so." A spokesperson from Verra, one of the largest certifiers of carbon reduction programs, tells Mic that it still supports that statement and warns that consumers may not be getting what they are promised if they don't exercise due diligence when purchasing carbon credits.
If you want to go through with purchasing a carbon offset, research the details of the service you're using. How do they verify their offset program? Just how much can they guarantee you is being done to counteract carbon emissions? Where are they doing their work? All of these factors matter when you're trying to maximize the effect of your offset and minimize your personal footprint.
What are the downsides of carbon offsets?
It's not just that offset providers might not be able to follow through on their promises — it's also that they may actively do harm in making those promises to begin with. Sandwell says some less reputable companies may be participating in "green grabbing," which she calls a form of appropriation. "In theory, planting trees or protecting ecosystems to prevent emissions or absorb carbon from the atmosphere sounds positive," she says. "However, depending on how this is done, it can have major negative impacts for local communities without delivering real environmental gains."
Sandwell explains that, in order to plant more trees or perform other types of biodiversity-based carbon offsetting, traditional land users like Indigenous people may be evicted from the land or denied access to it by governments and corporations that want to use the land for carbon offset initiatives. For example, the Sengwer Indigenous people in Kenya were allegedly evicted from their ancestral homes by the government's Kenya Forest Service, so that the land could be used for biofuels and crops.
"These programs are telling consumers that we can purchase our way out of the climate crisis — making them at best misleading, and at worst conduits for blatant lies."
Some experts also question how effective these man-made forests actually are at minimizing carbon emissions. Sandwell says many offset projects create "massive monocultural tree plantations" of single tree species, rather than foster the biodiversity that's necessary to create and sustain a healthy ecosystem. Studies have also found that these types of projects can result in "green deserts" that aren't nearly as efficient as diverse and naturally occurring forests are when it comes to carbon storage.
So should carbon offsets be avoided completely?
Offsets can be useful — but, as Greenpeace USA Senior Climate Campaigner Dr. Amy Moas tells Mic, we run into problems when we lean into offsets as a single magic-bullet solution. If we don't actually address the root causes of our personal carbon footprints, carbon offsets aren't going to make that much of a difference.
"These programs are telling consumers that we can purchase our way out of the climate crisis — making them at best misleading, and at worst conduits for blatant lies that risk distracting and delaying the vital work of addressing our climate crisis," Moas says. She worries that these programs are selling consumers on the idea that they can just pay a fee to make their carbon emissions go away, without having to actually make the necessary long-term changes to improve our planet's health. As Moas notes, you can market something as climate-friendly, but "simply marketing it as such does not make it so."
What can I do instead of buying carbon offsets?
The truth, according to independent policy analyst and communications expert Anja Kollmuss, is that we're well beyond the point of simply offsetting our carbon footprints. "The remaining CO2 budget we can emit if we want to stay well below 2 degrees [Celsius, the benchmark for warming if we want to avoid the worst effects of climate change] is extremely small," she tells Mic. "People should not have this false sense that they can somehow neutralize their climate impact."
Instead, Kollmuss recommends making changes in your personal life to reduce your impact in a more direct way. This can come in the form of changing your diet, reducing your travel, and trying to clean up other carbon-heavy habits.
If you're really keen to contribute financially, "donate money to organizations and politicians that work on making this change happen," Kollmuss says. "You cannot directly measure the impact your money has, but it will likely do more good than spending your money on offsets."
You can also make a huge difference without opening your wallet at all. "Get engaged in the political process, at what level and wherever it feels most interesting and rewarding to you," Kollmuss says. After all, just 100 corporations are responsible for more than 70% of the planet's total carbon emissions. If you can use your voice to push for policies that will hold those companies accountable and mandate a reduction in their carbon footprint, it will have a much greater impact than paying for a stranger to plant some trees you'll never see.