Check out also our other FAQ "About Carbonica”

  1. What are carbon offsets?
  2. Is offsetting a waste of money?
  3. Are there different types of carbon offsets?
  4. Why should I offset?
  5. What is carbon neutral and what is carbon negative?
  6. What do I get for my money when I buy a carbon offset?
  7. It’s difficult to justify the expense to get just a piece of paper, right?
  8. Should I offset a product I buy or should the company selling it offset it for me?
  9. Are carbon offsets real or a scam?
  10. How do I find a carbon offset provider I can trust?
  11. How can I identify if a carbon offset is real?
  12. Why do carbon offsets have a bad reputation?
  13. If I offset my flight, does it make a difference if the airplane has few or many passengers?
  14. Is carbon offsetting the same as business as usual?
  15. Does it mean that if I buy carbon offsets I can completely disregard the environment because I’ve already done my bit?
  16. If I offset does my carbon footprint become smaller?
  17. What is better: to reduce my carbon footprint or to offset it?
  18. Why do I have a carbon footprint?
  19. Can I reduce my carbon footprint to zero?
  20. A carbon offset is not something I can use, like a newspaper or a pint of milk, so why should I spend money on it?
  21. If carbon offsets compensate GHG emissions, why are they called “carbon” offsets and not GHG offsets?
  22. Isn’t it crazy to expect people to offset in a difficult economic climate?

1. What are carbon offsets?

Carbon offsets are a way of compensating for your carbon or other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. For example, if you travel by car on a journey and your total emissions are 5 kg of CO2, then you can buy a carbon offset for that amount and your net emissions for that journey will be zero. Your “gross” emissions are still 5 kilograms but the “net” emissions are zero. Buying a carbon offset is equivalent to buying a negative amount of emissions, because it subtracts emissions from the total net balance. It is a little trick to make it all a zero sum game, and by paying for your emissions you are funding emission reductions projects, such as clean energy.

Without carbon offsets, your gross and net GHG emissions are equal. With carbon offsets, your net emissions are always lower, and they can be as small as one likes, zero or even negative.

2. Is offsetting a waste of money?

The answer to that depends of course on how much you care about the environment, so it is a personal choice. Following the same logic, some people think that recycling is a waste of time and they don’t bother with it. Others (thankfully, nowadays the majority) take the time to separate their rubbish and neatly place the glass and paper and other recyclables to one side to dispose of separately. All this work takes a bit of our time but we are happy to do it because we believe that it makes sense financially to recycle so that we don’t discard valuable resources that can be used again.

In the same way, offsetting makes sense financially because it funds clean energy projects that would not otherwise happen. By paying for a carbon offset one can think of that cost as a small tax on emissions that is used for projects that create the opposite effect, to reduce emissions. It is a way of contributing to a cleaner environment. Of course there will be some who say that they have better things to do with their money, just like they will say that recycling is “for the neighbours”.

If we think of the cost of offsetting with some perspective, it is negligible. It costs about 1p to offset the GHG emissions of a litre of petrol. This is less than 1 percent of the total.

3. Are there different types of carbon offsets?

Yes. All of them create GHG emissions reductions, but in different ways. Clean energy projects generate emissions reductions by producing electricity from renewable sources, so they don’t cause the GHG emissions that would have been emitted if the same amount of electricity had been generated by burning fossil fuels. Therefore there are carbon offsets from all types of renewable energies: wind, solar, hydro, tidal and geothermal.

There are also forestry carbon offsets, which generate emission reductions by prevented deforestation, afforestation, or improved forestry management.

Finally there are industrial gas carbon offsets, which generate emissions reductions by filtering and preventing the emission of strong GHG such as methane and other gases in industrial processes.

4. Why should I offset?

There is no mandatory reason why you should but it is a very good thing if you do. Even if you take good care of the environment and use public transport or cycle or eat less meat, you will always have an environmental impact - it is unavoidable. This will take the form of a carbon footprint, as well as an ecological footprint of rubbish creation. However efficient we are at managing and minimizing this, there is always an impact and carbon offsets are a way of creating a “good” impact to compensate for the “bad”.

It doesn’t mean that we should obsess to keep track of a carbon scorecard to count our GHG emissions, like one counts calories. Regardless of our carbon footprint, offsetting is a good thing rather than a bad one. No one can argue against the fact that it is surely better to have lower net emissions through offsetting than higher. Any amount of offsetting will fund clean energy projects and contribute positively to the environment.

5. What is carbon neutral and what is carbon negative?

You are carbon neutral when your net GHG emissions are zero. This is achieved when your carbon offsets cancel out exactly your gross GHG emissions. People do this by calculating GHG emissions (the “carbon footprint”) in CO2 equivalent and then cancel it out exactly with the same amount of carbon offsets.

Carbon negative is when the amount of carbon offsets exceeds the gross GHG emissions, so the net emissions are in fact negative.

6. What do I get for my money when I buy a carbon offset?

We will send you a PDF document containing the carbon offset certificate. This contains all key information about the project that the carbon offset is funding. This is unique and non-transferable, because a carbon offset’s purpose is to offset emissions once and then they are “retired”, i.e. they cannot be reused or resold.

The certificate will tell you the location of the project: country, city, name of the company that originates the project, and the name of the project. Also the “type” of project: renewable energy, forestry or gas capture; and the “standard” of certification that has been used: Gold Standard, VCS, Plan Vivo or CCB. Another piece of information is the “vintage”: year in which the offset certification was issued by the validating organization. Most importantly it will give you a unique reference number that identifies the offset in the Markit Environmental Registry. We will retire the offset in your name and the unique reference number will pin it down in the Markit publicly available registry.

The certificate will also state the volume of carbon that is offset, which will be typically smaller than the totality of the project. A project normally generates a large number of offsets and as smaller volumes are allocated and sold they are retired and noted in the registry, which is when they come to the end of their life cycle.

All this information is necessary (and indeed sufficient) to make an offset credible. Without all the data above an offset certificate is not credible and every customer has a right to demand complete disclosure and transparency of the carbon offset information.

7. It’s difficult to justify the expense to get just a piece of paper, right?

If you put it that way, it doesn’t sound too good. However what your carbon offset certificate represents is your contribution to a clean energy project or reforestation project that would otherwise not happen. The carbon offset tells the world that your company supports an emissions reductions project to make up for its environmental impact, therefore giving something back to the world. This is a positive message of a very real positive contribution.

The carbon markets are not feasible with public funding alone. There simply isn’t enough government money to fund clean energy projects, particularly in developing countries, where GHG emissions grow at the fastest rate and where it is even more crucial to generate clean energy as they are becoming industrialized at breakneck speed. These projects can only happen through carbon finance and purchasing carbon offsets and cap-and-trade is what makes this possible. It is of course a personal choice whether we want to be part of that change or rely on others to create it.

8. Should I offset a product I buy or should the company selling it offset it for me?

That’s a very good question. We are still at the infancy of the carbon revolution, so sadly most companies are not paying any attention, with a few exceptions. We think that companies should offset, rather than customers, for many reasons. One reason is because a company can purchase offsets in bulk, commanding a more competitive price, and carry out all the due diligence to make sure that the product does what it says on the tin. This ensures that emissions are offset consistently for the entire volume of the production, factoring in the offset in the production costs. This is a neat way of making a product carbon neutral at the point of sale, and obviously more attractive for the customer.

If a product is not sold as carbon neutral, then customers who choose to offset individually are incurring an extra cost and therefore are punished for doing a good thing: effectively the product is costing them more than to customers who are not doing anything about their environmental impact. It’s unrealistic to expect that many customers will choose to offset if it’s presented as a self-imposed voluntary cost. Viewed this way, offsetting can never have mass appeal, and it can only succeed if it’s driven by the company creating the product.

9. Are carbon offsets real or a scam?

Carbon offsets are only real when they are verified and certified in the right way, and also you must be provided evidence of this with a unique identifying number that you can look up in a publicly accessible online registry (see our answer to the question “What do I get for my money when I buy a carbon offset?”). Only then you can consider them to be real emissions reductions that you can use reliably to offset your net GHG emissions. Carbon offsets sold without those assurances are not credible and you cannot assume they represent an emission reduction, otherwise you are only fooling yourself and at best wasting your money.

Never pay for carbon offsets that are not certified (by a reputable verifier such as Gold Standard, and never accept an in-house certification by the carbon offset provider) and do not believe face value promises of GHG emissions reductions that a provider can make on their website (see our answer to the question “How do I find a carbon offset provider I can trust?”). A promise of GHG reductions without certification such as a promise to plant a tree is likely to be a scam.

10. How do I find a carbon offset provider I can trust?

Most of the carbon offset providers that you will find online are legitimate and sell real carbon offsets that are certified with reputable standards, but you should look for the right credentials and affiliations. Never purchase offsets from obscure websites without any accreditation or affiliations, and in case of doubt, look for the top providers through Google, which will list for you the main players in the industry, who are all reputable and you can buy with confidence from them. Legitimate providers are members of carbon registries, such as Markit or Caisse des Depots and carbon markets, such as CTX, or carbon industry associations such as Climate Markets and Investors Association or ICROA.

11. How can I identify if a carbon offset is real?

It is not easy for a non-expert to look for the key ingredients that make a carbon offset legitimate, so that is why it’s so crucial to choose a reputable provider with the right credentials and affiliations (see our question “How do I find a carbon offset provider I can trust?”). Most sellers will not give you details of the project that your carbon offset will belong to before you actually buy, so it is difficult to check the offset until after the purchase. Once the purchase is completed and you receive your carbon offset certificate, it should contain a unique reference number that you should be able to look up in one of the online publicly accessible registries (see “What do I get for my money when I buy a carbon offset?”). If you do not receive this information, contact the retailer and insist on a clarification of where the carbon offset is retired, and they must provide this information.

Some of the mainstream providers allocate carbon offsets from a mixed portfolio of projects, particularly when they sell online to individuals. In this case, the offset certificate does not have a unique reference number and all one has to go by is the company’s promise that the offset is allocated from a fixed volume of offsets and we have to trust their internal audits and integrity in general to believe that there is no double counting or double selling. This is far from ideal, and customers don’t like to place so much trust even in the best companies. They want and deserve transparency and for this reason every customer must be given a unique reference number, otherwise there is no foolproof evidence that the carbon offset is real.

12. Why do carbon offsets have a bad reputation?

Carbon offsets do have a mountain to climb in terms of reputation, and much of it is due to the fact that it is a young industry. Many people have a problem understanding the purpose of carbon offsetting and they think it is hypocritical, because in principle one could carry on without limiting GHG emissions, offset them and then claim to be carbon neutral and therefore “green”. Cynics therefore claim that provided one is prepared to pay then offsetting a form of “business as usual” for the rich. However this is not in the right spirit of the concept. Carbon offsetting is intended to compensate for GHG emissions that one is unable to reduce, and in doing so supporting something good in the environment, such as the creation of clean energy. It is not intended to “greenwash” a polluting lifestyle.

On the other hand, being such a young industry, regulation has been slow to catch up with the fast moving carbon markets and it is only recently that strong standards of certification and validation have become established and widely recognized. This has created strong and credible products that customers can trust. In the early days, people would sell offsets without the right guarantees and many products were not worth the paper they were printed on. Nowadays, stringent standards and registries mean that the market has evolved a lot and customers are much more knowledgeable about ideas such as additionality, double-counting, etc, so thankfully most providers are communicating with a much savvier and discerning audience.

13. If I offset my flight, does it make a difference if the airplane has few or many passengers?

Yes, it does. The GHG emissions of a flight stem from burning fuel during the journey, so the exact amount to offset is the total emissions divided by the number of passengers in the flight. That would be the exact GHG emissions per passenger. However there is no way of knowing the number of passengers in advance, so a flight offset is always approximate. For a short haul flight the statistical average occupancy in an aircraft is 139 passengers, so to offset a flight what most Carbon Footprint calculators do is they calculate the total emissions of the flight (in proportion to the mileage) and they divide this figure by 139.

Of course if there are more passengers than that, the calculation would have overestimated the GHG emissions per head, and conversely, if there are fewer passengers the calculation would have underestimated it. Flight offsets are far from being an exact science unless one knows exactly the amount of fuel used during a journey and the exact number of passengers.

14. Is carbon offsetting the same as business as usual?

It is not intended to be. The purpose of carbon offsetting is not to provide a justification to carry on with business as usual - that’s diametrically opposed to the spirit of the concept. In fact the idea is to do the opposite of “business as usual”.

The first step prior to offsetting is to calculate GHG emissions, which tells us of what is the “baseline” to start with, the point from which one can compare in future whether emissions have gone up or down. Computing the baseline or the “carbon footprint” to start with is a step forward as that provides us information of where we stand. There is nothing worse than carrying out an activity mindlessly without any regard to the amount of GHG emissions generated, so knowing where we are is a good start.

Once that is done, there must be a strategy in place to be as efficient as possible in reducing GHG emissions. Setting annual targets for reductions must be accompanied with a plan and a timetable to implement changes, such as energy efficiency, and other measures to achieve these targets.

It’s within that framework that then –and lastly— we offset the remainder of the GHG emissions, at a level that we consider unavoidable at the current time. In future the unavoidable emissions will be lower (that is the purpose of the emission reduction strategy) so hopefully the amount to be offset will also decrease over time.

Therefore carbon offsetting only makes sense within this frame of action, otherwise it is a purely self-indulgent and lazy action.

15. Does it mean that if I buy carbon offsets I can completely disregard the environment because I’ve already done my bit?

No. Carbon offsetting is a good thing because it is a way of funding and promoting the generation of clean energy and projects that are good for the environment, but it is not a form of credit to justify a disregard for the environment (see our answer to “Is carbon offsetting the same as business as usual?”).

16. If I offset does my carbon footprint become smaller?

No, your carbon footprint remains the same. What is commonly known as the “carbon footprint” is the total gross GHG emissions in carbon equivalent. One can only reduce the carbon footprint by reducing emissions. However what offsetting does is to reduce the “net” GHG emissions.

Carbon offsets are “negative” emissions, i.e. an absorption of GHG from the atmosphere, if you like, rather than an emission. Your net GHG emissions are equal to your carbon footprint minus carbon offsets. Therefore when you offset your net GHG emissions become smaller, but not your carbon footprint. One could say your “net carbon footprint” does become smaller.

17. What is better: to reduce my carbon footprint or to offset it?

It’s best to reduce it. The choice shouldn’t be mutually exclusive, so the best of all things is to first reduce it and then offset it. After offsetting, the net GHG emissions become zero, so this is obviously more beneficial for the environment than not offsetting emissions at all. Reducing emissions without offsetting is equivalent to a job half done.

It can be argued that offsetting is the best thing to do, even if one has to choose between inaction or reducing emissions. For example, if a company’s emissions are 100 tCO2e per year, and in year one emissions are reduced 20 percent, there are still 80 tC02e of emissions to deal with. However if one offsets the 100 tCO2e to start with, net emissions would be zero, which is obviously better than 80 tCO2e. However offsetting without any form of prior reduction is difficult to justify and it is poor carbon management.

18. Why do I have a carbon footprint?

All companies have a carbon footprint due to the fact that they burn fossil fuels to create their products and run their operations. Their customers share it by purchasing goods and services.

A carbon footprint consists of both direct and indirect GHG emissions. Most companies have both types of emissions, and individuals only have indirect emissions. For example, by purchasing a pound of beef, a person is financing not only the physical product in his shopping basket, but also the entire volume of raw materials that have been necessary to generate the product, which includes thousands of gallons of water, the use of land and feed, and the generation of emissions.

Every single product and service that a consumer buys carries emissions and one can say that the consumer is “buying” these emissions too! The totality of the carbon footprint can be managed by making companies more efficient at creating their products with the smallest possible emissions levels.

19. Can I reduce my carbon footprint to zero?

It is possible in theory but very difficult in practice. Companies try very hard to be efficient at reducing GHG emissions and many succeed in achieving very ambitious targets but they never reach zero emissions. Individuals are really on the same boat because they are the market force for businesses and the end consumer ends up tallying up a carbon footprint.

Individuals have no control over the GHG emissions generated by manufacturers and their carbon footprint can only be reduced when businesses achieve successful carbon management strategies to cut emissions.

20. A carbon offset is not something I can use, like a newspaper or a pint of milk, so why should I spend money on it?

A carbon offset is a purchase of “negative” emissions to deduct from your net GHG emissions (see our answer to “What do I get for my money when I buy a carbon offset?” and also “Is offsetting a waste of money?”). Unfortunately it is not a very useful product for an individual customer – we cannot eat or drink carbon offsets, so it does not add anything to our daily lives. The upside is that it makes a positive contribution and it is the source of finance for clean energy projects around the world, which are responsible for real emissions reductions that would not happen without the existence of carbon offsets.

For companies, carbon offsets are a way to make a positive contribution and compensate their environmental impact by directly financing low-carbon projects. At the same time, by adopting a carbon management program to reduce emissions they are passing on a smaller carbon footprint to their customers and giving them the chance to endorse products with low-carbon credentials.

21. If carbon offsets compensate GHG emissions, why are they called “carbon” offsets and not GHG offsets?

Carbon offsets are from a large variety of projects, all of which reduce GHG emissions, and some in fact are not carbon-related (such as nitrous oxide), but most are, often from complex carbon molecules such as CFCs. GHG emissions are translated into their greenhouse strength relative to CO2, so all emissions are computed in CO2e (meaning CO2 equivalent) as a “common currency” for emissions, as it were.

Carbon offsets are certified in this “currency” and the basic unit is tCO2e (one ton of CO2 equivalent). All projects get their carbon offsets issued in these units regardless of the type of GHG emissions reductions that the project is about.

A “carbon” footprint is similarly shorthand for the totality of all GHG emissions, i.e. a “GHG footprint” and it is calculated in units of CO2e.

22. Isn’t it crazy to expect people to offset in a difficult economic climate?

This is a valid point, particularly in turbulent times like these, when we are facing a crisis of financial solvency of institutions, currencies and crippling levels of national debt. The case for offsetting in the current climate is diametrically opposed for individuals and for companies. Individuals offset their carbon footprint for idealistic reasons, mainly to do something good for the environment (see our answer to “Is offsetting a waste of money?”). This is all the more so given that carbon offsetting is still at its infancy and it is not widely understood, so the small number of individuals who have adopted it are a visionary tiny minority, which is even tinier as even idealistic individuals don’t have spare cash to spend on offsets.

For companies, additional arguments are at play. A difficult economic climate creates a necessity to gain competitive edge, to be visionary and forward looking and move ahead of the competition, making the way, not following the crowd. The environmental agenda and ethical business conduct is the main area where these differences are being played out and a lot of innovation has taken place in recent years. The most visionary companies are working on strong CSR policies to articulate what they do for the environment, their workers and their suppliers. These policies cost money to implement but are a good investment as companies see that their stakeholders and customers prefer them to be ethical, fair to their suppliers, green and aware of their environmental impact.

We are still at a very early stage and far from having CSR revolution in the corporate world, which is slowed down by the difficult financial climate, but some companies are moving fast in this area. GHG emissions reductions targets and carbon management are now becoming increasingly common and companies and more transparency in their carbon accounting gives customers the choice to opt for low-carbon options.


We aim to answer all your questions. If you haven’t found the answer you are looking for, email myquestion@carbonica.org



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