You can’t reduce your carbon footprint without measuring it. (Now, there’s a checking account for that—but more on that later.) Knowing your carbon footprint can help you make better purchasing decisions, but what do you do when you can’t further reduce your footprint? You can offset it. Here are ways to navigate the world of carbon offsets.
Recent surveys show that the majority of Americans think climate change is a serious problem requiring action. The next step, as reality sets in, is learning what we can do about it.
There is no single—or simple—solution to climate change, but individuals aren’t powerless to make a positive change. Carbon offset programs, when done right, are one way to maximize your efforts in the movement toward a more sustainable world. Sure, it may feel like a drop in the bucket, but gathering lots of drops is how buckets get filled.
Here’s what carbon offsets are, how they work, and how you can use them to lighten your carbon footprint.
What Are Carbon Offsets?
Carbon offsetting is a tool designed to help people reduce their carbon emissions. Offsets work by letting you compensate for your day-to-day greenhouse gas emissions by funding environmental programs that remove or avoid an equal amount of emissions. Though it’s common for large businesses to offset their greenhouse gas emissions, it’s now an increasingly popular way for people to reduce their own carbon footprint, too.
The funding carbon offsetting generates is critical for bringing new environmental projects to life, especially those considered financially risky. When a project is not guaranteed a profit, carbon offsets are a clever replacement for traditional funding. “It provides communities with the long-term confidence that they can actually go down this path,” said David Antonioli, CEO of Verra, in a phone interview. Verra is a leading carbon offset standards regulator.
The concept is simple, but historically, some programs have been ineffective or misleading, resulting in faulty reporting, and even fraud. But the carbon offset market has improved over the years, and now includes well-designed, certified, and impactful programs that make a real difference toward positive change.
Why Carbon Offsets?
Reputable, verified, and regularly audited carbon offset programs offer people and companies an opportunity to measure and put a price on their carbon footprint. The goal is to use this information to offset carbon emissions that can’t otherwise be reduced by immediate changes to behavior or operations. That is to say, carbon offsets are not meant to be a “get out of jail free card” for polluters, but an extra effort on top of everything else you’re doing to reduce emissions.
“The fact that carbon offsets generate funding for environmental projects that otherwise couldn’t exist is probably the most exciting reason to buy carbon offsets.”
The fact that carbon offsets generate funding for environmental projects that otherwise couldn’t exist is probably the most exciting reason to buy carbon offsets. “It’s very powerful to drive finance directly to a project that is really on the ground doing stuff,” said Antonioli.
What Makes a Good Carbon Offset Project?
Not any old environmental project can become a carbon offset project. The process for becoming verified is complex, but generally entails three fundamental specifications:
- Additional – Additionality means the project adds something new to the market that doesn’t—and couldn’t—already exist. Antonioli calls additionality the “process you go through to determine that the project would not have happened had it not been for carbon finance.” He explains that additionality gives the project “environmental integrity.”
- Traceable – Every carbon offset must be traceable to ensure they haven’t been sold repeatedly. Once sold, they are retired.
- Verifiable – All projects and claimed emissions reductions are audited and verified by third-party standards organizations like Gold Standard, Verra, and the United Nations.
Reputable Carbon Offset Programs
Companies and individuals work with carbon offset programs to buy offsets. The following programs adhere to the above standards and offer ways to offset carbon that are aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations in 2015. To make offsetting easier, these programs provide online tools to help users calculate their carbon footprint, choose a specific project of interest, and buy carbon offsets to help fund that project.
UN Climate Change
As part of its Climate Neutral Now initiative, UN Climate Change developed the United Nations’ carbon offset platform. The platform allows the public to support UN-certified Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) projects across the globe impacting environmental, economic, and social challenges in the developing world.
Carbon Credit Capital
With projects aimed at sustainable development and the “socio-economic co-benefits” of carbon offsetting, Carbon Credit Capital represents the projects associated with the SDGs. Offsets are available for individuals, business, or project type.
SeaTrees, from nonprofit Sustainable Surf, is a UN recognized provider of certified blue-carbon credits, which use coastal ecosystems to sequester carbon. SeaTrees uses carbon credits to protect and restore ecosystems like kelp forests, coastal watersheds, and mangrove forests, helping individuals and businesses “wipe out” their annual climate impact. Projects produce sustainable development benefits that directly support the UN SDGs, such as alleviating poverty, providing health care and education, and supporting gender equity.
COTAP: Carbon Offsets to Alleviate Poverty. The mission is right there in the name. COTAP funds projects in the least developed nations to support people living in poverty through small-scale agroforestry projects.
Like the others on this list, Cool Effect offers carbon offsets from projects in the developing world, such as providing clean cookstoves, preventing deforestation, and helping to preserve wildlife. Cool Effect guarantees that 90 percent of each dollar invested goes directly to projects, rather than administrative costs.
How to Track Your Carbon in Real-Time
Before you can offset your carbon footprint, you have to understand how to measure it. Late last year, Bank of the West announced it was teaming up with Doconomy, a Swedish fintech company, which is helping people do just that.
With Bank of the West’s new 1% for the Planet checking account1 , if they choose to download the app, customers have digital access to the carbon footprint of many debit card transactions through Doconomy and the Åland Index2. This helps determine the societal cost of your purchase.
“You can see your carbon impact both in weight of carbon emitted as well as money-wise,” explained Helena Mueller, chairwoman and co-founder of Doconomy, in an interview.
With this kind of information at your fingertips, you can make better consumer choices. After all, avoiding emissions should always be the first step. “We want to engage consumers in behavioral change, and offsetting should only be used for the emissions that has not yet been, or cannot be reduced,” Mueller said.
“We want to engage consumers in behavioral change, and offsetting should only be used for the emissions that has not yet been, or cannot be reduced.”
—Helena Mueller, Chairwoman & Co-Founder, Doconomy
Then, the emissions you can’t avoid may be offset through the carbon offset programs highlighted above.
“The answer to climate change isn’t one,” Mueller said. It’s millions of answers. You can be one of those answers. Track your carbon emissions. Avoid what you can and offset the rest. Next month, avoid a little more. Solutions take time.
1. The 1% for the Planet account is the Any Deposit Checking account that donates 1% of the net revenue of the account to environmental nonprofits through the 1% for the Planet organization. Net revenue is generally deﬁned as all fees charged to the account, plus interest income earned by the Bank on this account, minus any losses, debit card revenue and reversals. To view the complete definition of net revenue, please visit the product disclosures.
2. The carbon tracking tool, which will appear in the Bank of the West Mobile app for 1% for the Planet account, uses the Åland Index, a cloud-based service for carbon impact calculations, to provide a measurement of the potential carbon impact of purchases made with the 1% for the Planet debit card. The calculation is based on the merchant code, a code that indicates the types of goods or services a company provides, and the amount of the purchase. The actual carbon impact may be higher or lower than the measurement provided. Bank of the West licenses the Åland Index through Doconomy. Bank of the West does not control or guarantee the accuracy of the information provided by the Åland Index and makes no representation or warranties regarding the service.