One positive result of the media criticism of offsets is that consumers in the voluntary market have become increasingly savvy, pushing projects to become more accountable. According to a report by the nonprofit educational initiative Ecosystem Marketplace [pdf], buyers are asking tougher questions of providers. Third-party certification and in-person audits of projects, provided by independent firms, have become standard.

“There’s never going to be, in our lifetime, a low-carbon way to travel,” laments Andy Crestodina, owner of the benefit corporation Orbit Media Studios, which designs websites. He was initially motivated to offset his flights because he loves to travel. “The first time I read how much fuel is used and how huge the emissions are from flying, I [realized] the only way to reconcile that is to buy offsets,” he says.

For others, offsetting the carbon-emitting energy use of their sole proprietorships and small businesses motivates them. Not only is it tax deductible, it helps establish the company as one that makes socially responsible choices.

Last year Rhett Butler, founder of the online environmental news site Mongabay, offset five years worth of emissions from his personal life and business. “Since I’m passionate about tropical forests, rather than capturing methane emissions from a pig farm or dump, supporting forest conservation efforts is a logical way for me to try to mitigate my emissions as much as I can,” says Butler. “I don’t believe offsets are the solution to climate change, but I also recognize that emissions associated with Mongabay are indeed real. … I am trying to do what I can to help reduce my impact on the planet.”

As someone who believes in putting my money where my mouth is, I felt good about the choice to calculate my carbon footprint and then offset it, but it did not stop me from taking other actions in the ensuing years.

Editor and writer Miranda Spencer and her husband, Drexel University sociology and environmental science professor Robert Brulle, disagree over whether individual actions can really make a difference. Brulle says such actions by themselves are insufficient to enable the change necessary to address climate change, but Spencer researched offset projects and although she does not feel offsets alone can solve the climate crisis, she felt confident enough in their legitimacy to offset the emissions from her small business, Red Panda Communications.

I first offset my carbon footprint in 2006 after taking the world’s first carbon-neutral cruise in the Galapagos Islands with Ecoventura. As a journalist, I wrote about the experience and reviewed a report ranking various carbon offsetting organizations. As someone who believes in putting my money where my mouth is, I felt good about the choice to calculate my carbon footprint and then offset it, but it did not stop me from taking other actions in the ensuing years. Since that time, I have cut out meat almost entirely, installed CFL lightbulbs and began purchasing more organic produce, which can lead to a lower carbon footprint. This year I spotted TerraPass “Carbon Neutral Traveler” tags on my friend’s luggage during our trip to Costa Rica, and my envy spurred me to offset my footprint again, this time so I could show off similar tags — which may get someone else’s attention. Though I can’t personally inspect the projects I use to offset my emissions, I believe my efforts make a difference, however small. Which is in line with what Spencer told me: “Any of these projects seem like they can’t hurt and they might help. I’m not going to not do something that’s the right thing to do.”  View Ensia homepage

Who Offers Offsets?

The websites and papers below critically evaluate offset providers, and can help buyers sort the wheat from the chaff:

    • Greenopia has an online analysis of 11 offset providers, last updated in 2011. It rates providers on a scale of one to four leaves based on the quality of the provider’s carbon calculator, transparency in regards to information related to the offset projects and company operations, and whether and how often offset projects are audited by a third party. The only offset provider Greenopia ranks with the four leaves is TerraPass, while The Carbon Neutral Company, CarbonFund, 3 Degrees, Native Energy and Bonneville Environmental Foundation each get three leaves.