Concern over climate change rose to a fever pitch in 2006 after the release of Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth, and around the same time, the concept of carbon neutrality burst into public consciousness. Could people and businesses offset their carbon footprint by investing in projects, from capturing or burning off methane from livestock or landfills to reforestation and avoided deforestation, that prevent or capture greenhouse gas emissions?

Almost as soon as carbon neutrality took off, though, the concept was skewered, most famously by journalist George Monbiot, who compared carbon offsets to the Catholic Church’s Middle Ages practice of selling indulgences. Monbiot wrote that offsets would sidetrack society from the more urgent need to reduce fossil fuel use and merely assuage people’s guilt over their lifestyle, resulting in continuation of the status quo. His premise seemed to resonate with people and the idea spread.

But in 2007 Grist columnist David Roberts railed against Monbiot’s analogy, which he called a “transparent smear.” “[If] it was the aggregate amount of sin that mattered rather than any individual’s contribution, and indulgences really did reduce aggregate sin,” Roberts wrote, “then indulgences would have been a perfectly sensible idea.” And, Roberts wrote, despite a lack of evidence that people buy offsets to assuage guilt over an opulent lifestyle while neglecting other behaviors that benefit the environment, that argument was “just stated, over and over again, as though it is axiomatically true. … What is the personality profile of the guy who buys offsets and then considers his work done? I’ve never met him and have trouble envisioning him.”

But what, then, is the personality profile of an individual who offsets carbon? For three of the past five years, I have calculated and then offset my carbon footprint. I engage in many other energy-saving behaviors, but am not willing to live in a cave. Still, I’m a rarity even among climate-concerned folks. And I have often wondered: Had Monbiot and others not so effectively panned offsets, creating mass skepticism over their effectiveness (and the intentions behind those who use them), how many tons of greenhouse gases might have been eliminated by people like me?

“I think of my own small efforts to cut my emissions as the climate change version of the ‘First Rule of Holes,’ which is: If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging.” – Environmental journalist Nancy Bazilchuk

Looking for others who offset their carbon footprint proved challenging — perhaps not surprising given that individuals comprised only 1 percent of the voluntary offset market in 2010, down from 5 percent in 2006. A World Bank report [pdf] valued the voluntary offset market at $569 million in 2011, with around 87 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents traded, primarily from businesses and nonprofits interested in corporate social responsibility. The much larger “compliance market,” in which companies and governments purchase carbon credits to comply with caps on the amount of greenhouse gas emissions allowed under the Kyoto Protocol and other climate policies, was valued at $175.5 billion in 2011, with 10 billion metric tons CO2e traded. But the price of carbon has dropped substantially, raising concern over the future of the market.

It turns out, at least with those to whom I spoke, individuals who offset their footprint voluntarily do feel some guilt associated with their lifestyle, but contrary to Monbiot’s argument, all engage in additional environmentally conscious and energy-saving tactics, whether riding bikes, buying a hybrid vehicle, recycling or eating less meat. Since completely eliminating their footprint is nearly impossible in the modern world, all expressed a desire to do something more to help what they consider a global environmental and social problem.

“I know that the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that we are putting into the atmosphere is going to cause us all a great deal of trouble as … global temperatures increase and sea level rises,” says environmental journalist Nancy Bazilchuk, a U.S. citizen living in Norway. “I think of my own small efforts to cut my emissions as the climate change version of the ‘First Rule of Holes,’ which is: If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging.”

Though Bazilchuk was surprised by the low cost (“I can’t believe I can dispense with all my guilt for just $20 per transatlantic flight,” she says), she has concerns over whether offsets can make a difference. A series in the Christian Science Monitor in 2010 harshly criticized a handful of the carbon-reduction projects supported by offset purchases, expressing concern over the concept of “additionality” — whether these projects actually reduce emissions in a way that would not have occurred otherwise. Nevertheless, the reporting did not address how common these cases are among the thousands of projects that exist. 

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.
  • A 2011 article in the Journal of Business Ethics ranked multiple offset providers, with 11 getting the highest marks: 3 Degrees, The Carbon Fund, TerraPass, EcoSecurities, Carbon Clear, Climate Friendly, Tricorona Green, Pure, Climate Care, Climate Neutral Group and My Climate.
  • In 2008, the nonprofit education and consultancy organization Carbon Concierge developed a modifiable Carbon Offset Provider Evaluation Matrix [pdf] with which it evaluated 17 North American offset providers. The analysis ranked Native Energy and Climate Trust highest, followed by e-Blue Horizons, Sustainable Travel International and TerraPass. The criteria used in the matrix include offset quality, project location and offset traceability, project transparency, social benefit, third party evaluation and education.
  • An increasing number of companies offset emissions for customers, or offer the ability to do so for a small additional fee. Volkswagen and Land Rover offset the first year or first 45,000 miles, respectively, on a new purchase; UPS will offset shipping; and several airlines offer offsetting for a small additional fee.