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Digging deeper into carbon offsets

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Written by: Alexa Stone

Dig Deeper articles share highlights and source links from recent reporting. Topics for this series focus on the environment, workplace wellness, sustainability, and smart technologies.

What is a carbon offset?

Tree planting for carbon offsets
Many carbon offset projects involve forestry, renewable energy, or energy efficiency

Carbon trading, described as emissions trading by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is designed to offset the Greenhouse Gas (GhG) emissions, often caused by use of fossil fuels.  The trading quantifies and exchanges investments in projects that conserve energy, reduce emissions, or grow plants and trees. A carbon footprint (impact) is then mediated with an equivalent investment, a carbon offset.

According to the UNFCCC’s Climate Neutral Now website, carbon offsets are not an initial step. They are third in this sequence:

  1. Measure the climate footprints.
  2. Reduce as much as possible.
  3. Offset the rest with emission reductions that have been certified by the UN.

How is a carbon footprint measured?

Carbon footprint from air travel
Air traffic produces 4 or 5% of global CO2 emissions. That’s about a third of the amount produced by road traffic.

The online magazine, TakePart, defines a carbon footprint as the amount of  GhG produced by a particular human activity. It can be an individual’s footprints or an organization’s footprints.

Just as there are many types of human activity, there are many ways GhG could be produced and measured. Fortunately, free online tools simplify the calculations. Consider these from relevant, reliable sources:

  • The Nature Conservancy estimates that the average individual carbon footprint in the U.S. is 16 tons. Reducing that to under 2 tons by 2050 would substantially help avoid a 2℃ rise in global temperatures. A detailed online calculator identifies what goes into an individual’s carbon footprint and what might be reduced.
  • A website published by the Rocky Mountain Institute, a highly-rated nonprofit, includes a calculator that focuses on air travel.
  • To estimate your household’s carbon footprint, head to EPA.gov, where you will find their carbon footprint calculator.

Where should carbon offsets be invested?

Wind energy in Mongolia
Carbon offset investments may be made in renewable energy projects like this one in Mongolia

The Center for Resource Solutions has developed a certification program for projects that offset carbon emission. Currently, four Green-e® Climate Endorsed Programs provide online catalogs of certified projects:

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