Recent surveys show that the majority of Americans think climate change is a serious problem requiring urgent 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 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 as 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. “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.
ClimateSeed offers a unique, triple-verification process and a transparent, user-friendly digital platform. Aligned with the SDGs and Clean Development Mechanism, ClimateSeed funds projects throughout the developing world. Activities include forestry, water, waste management, energy efficiency, agriculture, and community-based projects.
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.
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 funds projects in the developing world, such as providing clean cookstoves, preventing deforestation, and helping to preserve wildlife. Cool Effect guarantees that 90% of each dollar invested goes directly to projects, rather than administrative costs.
There are many tools available to help you determine your carbon footprint. Most of the offset programs mentioned here offer a carbon calculator tool. But with so many tools and calculators out there, it is confusing deciding which is best for you for your circumstances.
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.
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% for the Planet Checking Account Disclosures
1) With 1% for the Planet with Any Deposit Checking the $10.00 monthly service charge is waived with one deposit of any amount each statement cycle. Deposits include direct deposit, mobile deposit, ATM deposit, or an in-branch deposit of any amount. Deposits do not include fund transfers between Bank of the West accounts or any credits from Bank of the West. Monthly service charge also waived if any account owner is under age 25.
2) The carbon impact tool for 1% for the Planet with Any Deposit Checking 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 debit card for your 1% for the Planet with Any Deposit Checking account. The calculation is based on the Merchant Category Code assigned to your debit card purchase and indicates the classification of goods or services a company provides, as well as the amount of the purchase. The actual carbon impact may be higher or lower than measurement provided. The Åland Index is the leading index solution for carbon emission calculations for payments and financial transactions. The Åland Index Solution is a joint venture between Ålandsbanken and Doconomy. Bank of the West licenses the Åland Index from Doconomy. To learn more visit alandindexsolutions.com. 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 services.