Carbon Offsets: What's Out There?

Carbon offset vendors each sell something slightly different. It’s like you are buying a chocolate egg with a prize inside. The eggs are similarly wrapped, so how can the purchaser know what is inside?

Fortunately, with the exception of a few clunkers, the offset vendors are doing good work. So you’re on a shopping trip, looking for the offset vendor that best suits your values. If you’re in a hurry, go ahead and grab the following recommendation off the shelf:

Offset vendors and calculators:
• – The best Canadian vendor (of two). Its offsets are a collaboration with, a British offset organization.
• – Climate Care has numerous small scale projects, one of the few groups with the capacity to fund non-governmental projects. Most of their projects support sustainable energy in places that could not otherwise afford it. They are phasing out carbon sequestration through reforestation.
• – the personal offset site for Climate Trust, based in Oregon. Its projects are primarily based on industrial efficiency and renewable energy in Oregon and other states, with some reforestation.
• – Native Energy supports new renewable energy projects. It looks for projects that are community based, and is majority owned by Native Americans. Mostly they build wind farms on the Great Plains, but they have some small scale methane digesters and solar projects.

For The Shoppers …What Type of Project Will You Support?
At offset vendor websites, you’ll find descriptions of many projects, allowing you to choose vendors with projects that support your values.

Solar and Wind
My preferred offsets support solar and wind technology and industrial efficiency. My first choice is small scale projects that replace fossil fuel usage in off-the-grid locations based on community consultation. Large scale projects can be an clumsy imposition on communities. In North America, which has large-scale grid-based energy consumption, large scale projects seem key.
Recommended offset vendors: same as above.

Methane digesters capture methane, a worse green house gas than carbon, and use it to generate electricity. It’s a win-win: less methane released, less fossil fuel consumed. Large scale projects exist in Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and Chile, mostly supported the Kyoto-based offsets.

The usual methane source is huge cesspools created by industrial livestock operations. There are lots of reasons I don’t eat meat or drink milk from industrial livestock operations, so I avoid putting money into that system given other options. Some methane capture projects, like Native Energy’s, support small scale anaerobic methane digester projects on family farms.
Recommended offset vendor: Native Energy.

The biggest release of carbon in forestry comes from the soil disturbances at the time of logging. Prevention of logging, particularly of old growth forests with ancient soil reservoirs, is key. Logging old growth forests in Canada contributes over three times as much CO2 to the atmosphere as all the country’s automobiles: about 190 million tons to 50 million tons. Canada has to stop cutting its forests for this and many other reasons. I’d buy offsets that permanently preserve old growth forests if there were any, even though this doesn’t meet the “additionality” criteria for me: we should be doing this in any event!

Global warming is caused by fossil fuels, by which human activities release carbon in quantities sufficient to overwhelm the natural carbon cycle. The solution must include preventing the entry of this heavy load of fossil fuel carbon to the atmosphere.

Reforestation offsets don’t guarantee permanent relief of atmospheric carbon. Trees release carbon through fire, disease, and logging. Their carbon storage is temporary while the fossil fuel carbon in the atmosphere lasts much longer. In addition, reforestation offsets have been used as a subsidy for large-scale plantations which create monocultures and displace forest peoples. Reforestation projects don’t indicate whether they use GMO trees or not, although some tout stock with increased pest resistance.

Some projects promise a certain tree life span, but only World Land Trust promises permanent prohibition of logging. C02 Balance even promises to log before it’s trees are old enough to naturally decay, ignoring the release of massive amounts of carbon dioxide caused by disrupting forest soils. Gordon Campbell’s talk of selling reforestation offsets for BC notably fails to include permanent protection.
Recommended offset vendor: World Land Trust.

For The Serious Shopper
At a deeper structural level, vendors put the “Offset” label onto commodities arising from four distinctly different sources: 1) US state regulations created in Renewable Energy Certificates; 2) the Kyoto Protocal created Certified Emissions Reductions; 3) non-governmental carbon reduction initiatives; and 4) voluntary cap-and-trade markets for corporations. Non-governmental carbon reduction initiatives and the Renewable Energy Certificates best suit my goal of supporting sustainable energy sources.

Renewable Energy Certificates
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