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Solar panel project in Dakar, Senegal

Solar panel project in Dakar, Senegal (Fratelli dell'Uomo Onlus/CC-BY-3.0)

STEM in Context

What are Carbon Offsets?

Kim Taylor & Let's Talk Science

Summary

Can carbon offsets help you reduce your environmental footprint, practice sustainable living and fight climate change?

Today, many people are concerned about climate change and sustainable living. These people are looking for ways to reduce their environmental impact. This can include decreasing their carbon footprint

Your carbon footprint is a measure of how much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) you are responsible for. This is determined by your activities. Some activities have a direct effect. Flying a plane is one example. That’s because burning fuel to fly a plane releases greenhouse gases. Other activities have a more indirect effect. Eating beef is an example. That’s because beef comes from cows that burp greenhouse gases. Also, farmers need land to grow crops to feed the cows. To get that land, forests might be cleared.

If you were to build a cube to represent one metric ton of carbon dioxide, it would measure approximately eight metres on each side
If you were to build a cube to represent one metric ton of carbon dioxide, it would measure approximately eight metres on each side (© 2019 Let’s Talk Science).

Calculating your footprint can be complicated. But there are things you can do to keep your carbon footprint down. For example, you can walk places instead of driving or getting a ride. 

But it is impossible to get rid of our carbon footprint entirely. For the part of our carbon footprint we can’t get rid of, people have created carbon offsets.

What is a Carbon Offset?

Carbon offsets are a type of credit. Companies and other organizations sell them. They use the money to support projects that reduce or remove GHGs from the atmosphere. They also support projects that prevent GHGs from getting in the atmosphere in the first place. People, companies and even governments can buy these credits. These credits are a way to compensate for, or “offset,” GHG emissions.

For example, let’s say your class was taking a trip by plane. When you purchase your plane ticket, you could also purchase a carbon offset. The money from your carbon offset could be used in a reforestation project.

The purpose of the credits is to help people and organizations balance their emissions. The goal is to become carbon neutral. For example, let’s say you started driving. Cars release GHGs. How could you become carbon neutral? Well, you could calculate your car’s CO2 emissions. Then, you could purchase an equivalent amount of CO2  in carbon offsets.

Filling a bathtub is like adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Draining a bathtub is like removing carbon dioxide.
Filling a bathtub is like adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Draining a bathtub is like removing carbon dioxide. (Let’s Talk Science using an image from Clker-Free-Vector-Images via Pixabay).

 

Did you know?

Carbon offsets are sold in metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2). For  more about carbon dioxide equivalents, see our Vehicle Emissions Primer). 

What are some different types of carbon offset projects? 

Many different types of projects are funded by carbon offset companies. Renewable energy projects often offer carbon offsets. Some examples are wind, solar, and geothermal energy projects. These methods of generating heat or electricity produce much less GHGs than fossil fuel-based methods. 

Some projects help avoid having GHGs go into the atmosphere in the first place. Landfill gas recovery projects and biogas plants capture GHGs, such as methane. These GHGs are naturally released into the atmosphere from the breakdown of waste. Once these GHGs are captured, they can be burned (combusted) to generate electricity. 

Other projects help remove GHG directly from the atmosphere. This includes tree-planting projects and other planting projects. Plants are considered carbon sinks. That’s because they take CO2 out of the atmosphere and use it for photosynthesis.

Tree-planting projects sell offsets. Scientists calculate how much CO2 the trees are expected to remove over the course of their lives. Then, tree-planting projects sell offsets for that amount of CO2. Efforts to protect existing forests in danger may also count as offsets. 

Teen planting a coniferous tree sapling
Teen planting a coniferous tree sapling (Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia Commons).

What are the pros and cons of carbon offsets? 

Like anything in life, carbon offsets come with pros and cons. Carbon offsets can help fund projects that promote sustainable living. For example, they might help fund technologies that help companies generate electricity, reduce waste, and be more environmentally sustainable. But some of these new technologies may not be successful. 

Carbon offsets can help smaller projects get funding that they might not get otherwise. This can help provide jobs and improve the local environment. But not all of the money used to purchase a carbon offset goes these projects. Carbon offset companies are businesses. Like all businesses, they aim to make money.

Some projects, like tree-planting, can remove CO2 from the atmosphere. This is really useful! However, they may not make a difference for years to come. Also, they might not be done in an environmentally responsible way. For example, planting huge plantations of the same kind of tree might be the most effective way of using trees to absorb carbon dioxide. But some people argue this would reduce biodiversity. It could also use lots of fertilizers and water.  Also, someday these trees will die and decompose. Or, they’ll be cut down and burnt as fuel. When either of these things happen, the carbon these trees store up will be released. 

One of the biggest concerns about carbon offsets is additionality. These organizations must make changes that would not have happened without carbon offset funds. But countries and businesses around the world are moving towards greener practices anyway. It can be hard to tell what difference offset funding makes.

Finally, on the one hand, the sale of carbon offsets can raise awareness about GHG emissions. On the other hand, carbon offsets offer a way for people to “spend their way out” of taking real responsibility for their emissions. In other words, people can buy a carbon offset rather than change their lifestyle. This can be particularly controversial. Very often, wealthier people and countries offset their emissions by paying for initiatives in poorer countries. In poorer countries, it’s much cheaper to get projects done. 

Did you know?

Many musicians offset the carbon emissions from their concert tours through REVERB, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing sustainability to concert tours. Here is the current list. Do you recognize any Canadian artists, or any concerts that came to your area?  

What should you think about before buying a carbon offset? 

Are you thinking about buying carbon offsets? Do your homework before you spend your cash. Look for companies that meet certain standards. Examples include the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) or the Gold Standard. These standards set out rules for setting up, measuring, and monitoring carbon offset projects.

Also, find out what projects the company is supporting. Check how much of your money will go directly into the projects they fund. Finally, make sure that you are funding projects that would not happen without your help anyway.

So what can you do to reduce your carbon footprint and live sustainably? Buying carbon offsets should be a line of last resort. It should not be your first resort. And it definitely should not be your only resort! There are many little things you can do every day to reduce your GHG emission responsibility. Walk to school. Plant some flowers. Eat locally. The (clean) sky's the limit!
 

Starting Points

Connecting and Relating
  • Would you ever consider purchasing a carbon offset? Why or why not?
  • Would purchasing a carbon offset make you feel like you were helping the environment? Why or why not?
  • Do you think carbon offsetting programs distract people from reducing their own emissions? Explain.
Connecting and Relating
  • Would you ever consider purchasing a carbon offset? Why or why not?
  • Would purchasing a carbon offset make you feel like you were helping the environment? Why or why not?
  • Do you think carbon offsetting programs distract people from reducing their own emissions? Explain.
Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment
  • Is carbon offsetting the key to solving climate change? Why or why not?
  • Do carbon offset projects in the Third World (countries like Ghana) encourage people in the First World (countries like Canada) to keep on polluting? Explain.
  • Do you think we rely too much on science and technology to solve our environmental problems? Explain.
Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment
  • Is carbon offsetting the key to solving climate change? Why or why not?
  • Do carbon offset projects in the Third World (countries like Ghana) encourage people in the First World (countries like Canada) to keep on polluting? Explain.
  • Do you think we rely too much on science and technology to solve our environmental problems? Explain.
Exploring Concepts
  • Why would burning methane gas be better for the environment than letting it be released naturally into the environment?
  • Although popular as carbon offsets, why are tree-planting projects problematic?
  • Would it be better to not generate GHG emissions in the first place than to emit and offset? Explain.
Exploring Concepts
  • Why would burning methane gas be better for the environment than letting it be released naturally into the environment?
  • Although popular as carbon offsets, why are tree-planting projects problematic?
  • Would it be better to not generate GHG emissions in the first place than to emit and offset? Explain.
Nature of Science/Nature of Technology
  • How can a carbon offsetting project determine that it is making a difference in terms of GHG emissions?
  • Is it more important for scientists to be working on methods to prevent the future impact of our current GHG emissions or creating better alternatives to using fossil fuels? Explain.
  • Should climate change researchers be able to provide carbon offsets? Why or why not?
Nature of Science/Nature of Technology
  • How can a carbon offsetting project determine that it is making a difference in terms of GHG emissions?
  • Is it more important for scientists to be working on methods to prevent the future impact of our current GHG emissions or creating better alternatives to using fossil fuels? Explain.
  • Should climate change researchers be able to provide carbon offsets? Why or why not?
Media Literacy
  • How do carbon offset companies sell the concept of carbon offsets?
  • How are carbon offsets being used by people and businesses to improve their “green” image?
  • What information should the media provide to help the public understand the concept of carbon offsets?
Media Literacy
  • How do carbon offset companies sell the concept of carbon offsets?
  • How are carbon offsets being used by people and businesses to improve their “green” image?
  • What information should the media provide to help the public understand the concept of carbon offsets?
Teaching Suggestions
  • This article supports teaching and learning connected to Earth & Environment and sustainable living, specifically the role of carbon offsets as a means of lowering carbon footprints. Concepts introduced include carbon footprint, carbon offset, carbon neutral and carbon sink. 
  • After reading this article, teachers could have students evaluate and discuss the value of carbon offsets as a means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by completing a Think-Discuss-Decide learning strategy. Download ready-to-use reproducibles using the Think-Discuss-Decide learning strategy for this article in [Google doc], and [PDF] formats.
  • Teachers could also have students look at the issue of purchasing and/or generating carbon offsets from different perspectives (e.g., manufacturer creating GHG emissions, renewable energy company, community politician, non-profit environmental group or individual) by using an Issues & Stakeholders learning strategy. Download ready-to-use Issues & Stakeholders reproducibles in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats.
Teaching Suggestions
  • This article supports teaching and learning connected to Earth & Environment and sustainable living, specifically the role of carbon offsets as a means of lowering carbon footprints. Concepts introduced include carbon footprint, carbon offset, carbon neutral and carbon sink. 
  • After reading this article, teachers could have students evaluate and discuss the value of carbon offsets as a means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by completing a Think-Discuss-Decide learning strategy. Download ready-to-use reproducibles using the Think-Discuss-Decide learning strategy for this article in [Google doc], and [PDF] formats.
  • Teachers could also have students look at the issue of purchasing and/or generating carbon offsets from different perspectives (e.g., manufacturer creating GHG emissions, renewable energy company, community politician, non-profit environmental group or individual) by using an Issues & Stakeholders learning strategy. Download ready-to-use Issues & Stakeholders reproducibles in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats.

Learn more

Carbon Footprint 

One of many available calculators to help you figure out how much carbon dioxide you are using - this one is more comprehensive than most.

Carbon offsetting (2018)

A reasonable overview from Explain That Stuff! of carbon offsets featuring an extensive list of further links on both sides of the debate

Carbon offsets can do more harm than good (2014)

An overview from The Conversation of several of the main arguments against carbon offset programs.

How Coldplay's green hopes died in the arid soil of India (2006)

An article from The Telegraph on how a high profile carbon offsetting project went wrong.

References

Clark, D. (2011). A complete guide to carbon offsetting. The Guardian.

David Suzuki Foundation. (2017). Carbon offsets.