How to Know Which Carbon Offset Projects are the Real Deal: A Quick Guide - Public Goods Blog How to Know Which Carbon Offset Projects are the Real Deal: A Quick Guide - Public Goods Blog

How to Know Which Carbon Offset Projects are the Real Deal: A Quick Guide

There are many different ways we can reduce our carbon footprint.

wind turbines in a field

We can eat less factory-farmed meat, use public transportation, buy our clothes second-hand or minimize the number of flights we take per year. We can even reduce our carbon footprint by leaving the lawn mower to the side and letting our lawns grow wild!

But even when we do our best to reduce our carbon emissions, in today’s hustle and bustle world, some emissions are inevitable. Some flights just have to be taken, some lawns just have to be mowed, and sometimes driving is the only option. So what can we do to counteract these almost inevitable emissions?

That’s where purchasing ‘carbon offsets’ might be the solution. Here’s a quick run-through of what carbon offsets are and how to know which ones are genuine.

What Are Carbon Offsets?

A carbon offset is an investment in a project or initiative that works to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Reforestation projects, renewable energy initiatives, and regenerative agriculture are popular examples of carbon offset investments.

Ideally, each carbon offset purchased will be equal to a defined volume of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. So by purchasing a carbon offset, you are using your money to remove a specific amount of carbon from the atmosphere. Whether that be through investing in trees that will sequester CO2, solar panels that will reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, or sustainably run farms that produce carbon positive food. There are many options to choose from.

The idea is that by purchasing the appropriate volume of carbon offsets, you can counteract your excess emissions and eliminate your carbon footprint by becoming carbon neutral.

So clearly carbon offsets are the perfect solution for reversing climate change, right? Well, not exactly. Like with most positive environmental initiatives, there are still some issues to watch out for.

Carbon Offsets: What are the Issues Involved?

One of the main issues with carbon offsets is the idea that they don’t address the route cause of our emissions. If we can just pay to nullify our emissions, there’s no real incentive for us to change our lifestyle and live in a more eco-friendly way.

Carbon offsets should only ever be used as a last resort. You should always try to minimize your emissions through lifestyle changes first, and then purchase carbon offsets to cancel out any unavoidable emissions. But even when this is the case, there are still many issues when it comes to figuring out which carbon offset projects are the real deal.

How do you know that the tree-planting initiative you’re investing your hard-earned dollars in is actually happening? What if they were going to plant the trees anyway, and the farmers are just pocketing your money on the side? Or what if they do plant the trees, but they cut them down after three months and don’t sequester any carbon from the air?

As people become more environmentally conscious, the carbon offset market has become a big business in the last year or so. Like with any business, there are people out there trying to make a quick buck from your well-intentioned investments. So how do you know if a particular carbon offset project is actually decreasing the carbon in the atmosphere?

How to Know if a Carbon Offset Project is Legit

If a carbon offset project is genuine, it will incorporate all of the following characteristics:

Quantifiable

This may seem like an obvious one, but it’s very important. To accurately compensate for your excess carbon emissions by purchasing carbon offsets, it must be clear exactly what volume of emissions each carbon offset represents. This way you can calculate your excess emissions, and purchase the appropriate volume of carbon offsets to counteract them.

Added Value: Creating Something New

For a carbon offset investment to be considered legitimate, it must result in a defined reduction of carbon in the atmosphere that would not have been possible without that particular investment. Any reduction in carbon that results from credible carbon offset investments must be additional to what was already going to happen.

This is a concept known as ‘additionality.’ It ensures that your carbon offset investments are genuinely reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, and not just increasing the profitability of existing projects.

For example, investing in a wind farm project that was already going ahead might make that project more profitable. Assuming your investment does not increase the proposed size of the wind farm, however, the extra money will not contribute to any further reduction in emissions. The wind farm and the reduction in emissions associated with it would have happened regardless, with or without your investment.

But by investing in a new wind farm project that can only be initiated with carbon offset funding, you can ensure your money is catalyzing a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that would not have happened otherwise.

No Carbon Leakage

Sometimes well-intended actions can have unforeseen and destructive consequences. What if securing a particular piece of land for a reforestation project causes a meat products company, who also wanted the land, to deforest other areas instead? It’s likely that the carbon sequestered by the reforested land would be counteracted by the deforested land. This dynamic is referred to as ‘carbon leakage’, and a truly effective carbon offset project will be designed to prevent these kinds of outcomes.

Permanence

Once the carbon has been captured or prevented, it must stay that way! For reforestation projects, this permanence means the trees must be allowed to grow to maturity, and the forests involved must be sustainably managed moving forward.

For renewable energy projects, this value means the infrastructure must be properly maintained and, when the time comes, disposed of in a carbon-friendly manner. There’s no point investing in a carbon offset project that only reduces emissions temporarily!

No Double Counting

It’s essential that when you purchase a carbon offset, that same carbon offset is not being sold to anybody else. If you’re paying for a particular tree to be grown, you must be sure the tree is unique to you and your investment. So expect to receive things like unique serial numbers, photographic proof, and regular updates regarding your investments if the carbon offset project is a legitimate one. Basically, the whole process should be as transparent as possible.

Transparent and Verified

When you invest in a carbon offset project, the whole process should be clear and transparent, and you should know exactly where your money is going. Fortunately, there are some really great nonprofits and third-party verification programs out there to help make this possible.

Carbon Offset Projects Verifiers

To be absolutely sure a carbon offset project meets the required standards, it should be verified by an independent third-party organization. There are many of these organizations out there, and you can use their websites directly to invest in legitimate carbon offset projects.

Here are two of the best third-party verifiers:

Gold Standard

Gold Standard was established in 2003 by the World Wildlife Federation and other environmental NGOs to ensure that carbon reduction projects around the world are conducted with environmental integrity in mind. Gold Standard is partnered with organizations such as Fairtrade International, ClimateWorks Australia, and FairClimateFund, and has a rigorous certification process. You can be confident that any project you invest in through Gold Standard is a genuine one.

Cool Effect

Officially launched in 2015, Cool Effect is an international not-for-profit that focuses on reducing carbon emissions and reversing climate change. The inspiration for Cool Effect originally came from the Mirador Clean Cookstoves project, which works to produce clean-burning cookstoves in Honduras.

Cool Effect works with organizations of all sizes around the globe, is transparent with everything they do, and each of their projects “must meet the toughest requirements of the world’s major carbon standards.” It seems they’re a pretty safe bet if you’re thinking of purchasing some carbon offsets!

By investing in carbon offset projects through either of these organizations, you can rest assured your money is being put to good use. As I mentioned, however, there are plenty of other legitimate options out there!

Carbon Offsetting With Public Goods

You can even invest in carbon offset projects by shopping with Public Goods!

Since 2019 they have partnered with Eden Reforestation Projects to help them plant trees, restore land and lift people out of extreme poverty around the world.

Eden Reforestation Projects is a nonprofit organization founded in 2004 “whose mission is to provide fair wage employment to impoverished villagers as agents of global forest restoration.” Every time anyone orders products through Public Goods or signs up to one of their email lists, they send Eden a little money to help them plant new trees.

Because Eden hires local villagers to plant native trees, this money helps provide much-needed employment in some of the most impoverished areas of the world, as well as sequestering carbon from the atmosphere.

Although not yet Gold Standard-certified, Eden has already planted over 250 million native trees around the world in Ethiopia, Madagascar, Nepal, Haiti, Indonesia and Mozambique. They are currently working with various third-party verification partners such as Stockholm University and Leeds University in the UK to back up these numbers.

Unfortunately they can’t offer you serial numbers for each tree we help them plant yet, but if you sign up to the Eden email list they will keep you notified about all their project updates and results.

And remember, by shopping with Public Goods you are helping to plant trees around the world at no extra cost at all!

My Own Example: Mossy Earth

Another example of a genuine carbon offset project I have recently signed up for myself is a great little community of planet-friendly folks called ‘Mossy Earth.’

By becoming a member of Mossy Earth, you can reduce your carbon footprint by investing in carefully chosen reforestation and rewilding projects around the world.

For £10 a month, Mossy Earth will plant 40 native trees a year in my name. I actually receive a photo, serial number, and specific coordinates for every tree they plant for me, and there’s a fully accessible database of all the trees they’ve planted on their website.

I also receive regular project updates by email, so I know my trees are growing to maturity. I can even video chat with the folks at Mossy Earth if I have any questions, and vote on upcoming projects as part of the community. Now if that’s not transparency, I don’t know what is!

All in all Mossy Earth seems to be a really genuine organization, and through investing in their carefully chosen projects I feel I am doing my bit to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.

But as I mentioned earlier, this generosity does not give me the right to go on living a carbon-heavy lifestyle. I have already been trying to reduce my carbon footprint as much as possible by making lifestyle changes. Investing in carbon offsets through Mossy Earth is just something I’m doing on top of that.

Minimize, Calculate, and then Offset

Practiced responsibly, in conjunction with a deeper transition to a more carbon-friendly world, carbon offsets can be a powerful tool in the fight against climate change. Nonetheless, they should never be used as an excuse to pollute.

We should try to minimize our emissions first wherever possible — before investing in legitimate carbon offset projects like the ones mentioned above — to compensate for any excess emissions.

If you are interested in investing in a carbon offset project, using a carbon footprint calculator like this one is a good place to get started.

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Comments (5)

  • Why don’t we start maintaining carbon offsets by not cutting established forests? There’s a big solar company that wants to cut down 6000 acres of older growth mixed hardwood forest in my area which which is a bird migration path. It’s not “desirable” because a power line runs through it. Tell that to the blue birds that nest here. Many birds, like red winged blackbirds which used to be common but are on the endangered species list return to the same nesting spots year after years. Our birds are already down 30%. What can be done? #1. Stop cutting established habitat. It takes 80-100 years to regrow and the birds don’t have that long. #2. The “reforestation” by big business usually plants a mono-culture. Same type of tree. Better than nothing, but still habitat gets destroyed. #3 Solar and wind can be done responsibly in regard to environment (we’ve seen this in places like New Zealand) but that is not what I am seeing in my state. Why aren’t you writing about these issues?

    • Hey Sharon,

      I absolutely agree with you on all of this. There are some carbon offset projects out there, all over the world that are more focused on making money than actually protecting the planet and local habitats.

      It’s an absolute travesty to see renewable energy projects being implemented at the expense of biodiverse woodland that has taken years to grow. And as you say, monocultures are an absolute disaster for biodiversity and long-term soil health.

      These kinds of issues would fall under the ‘carbon leakage’ category that I mentioned in the article. A genuinely beneficial carbon offset project should never contain any carbon leakage like the issues you have mentioned above, and should always be transparent, permanent, and verified as mentioned. I suppose I wrote this article more from the angle of what a genuine carbon offset project should look like, without focusing too much on specific examples of what it shouldn’t look like.

      I basically wanted to provide a guide, or a general idea of what a genuinely good carbon offset project should look like, and if you were to assess any potential carbon offset project against the suggestions I have made in this article, and the carbon offset project in question were to line up with all the elements I have mentioned, then you can be pretty sure that it’s a genuine project that’s worth investing in.

      It seems clear that unfortunately the projects you have mentioned would not line up well with many of the elements I have mentioned in the guide, and therefore would not be projects I would recommend people invest in.

      Perhaps it would be a good idea to write another article in future which focuses on what a destructive carbon offset project might look like, with the issues you have mentioned above being prime examples!

  • I just recently started using Public Goods and I’m really happy with all the products and the entire company so far. Just read the paragraph above about carbon offset verifiers and found it very interesting. I wanted to pass along that my husband and I are starting a wind farm (Green Power Farms LLC) in Vermont. We’ve literally put everything we have into it. It should be up and running in the fall. I admire your commitment to all that’s “good” – we are trying to do the same. Thanks for all your efforts!

    • Hey Ian,

      Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed the article.

      I am currently working as a freelance writer and blogger, and have been lucky enough to write some articles for the Public Goods blog these past couple of months.

      Cheers for the comment, I hope you are doing well 🙂

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