Carbon offset means to bring down emissions of carbon or greenhouse gases to give back for emissions given off elsewhere. Offsets are measured in carbon dioxide-equivalents and represent six groups of greenhouse gases. One offset stands for reduction of one metric ton of carbon dioxide. Two main carbon offset markets exist. The larger market is made up of companies or governments that buy offsets to meet with caps put on them for carbon dioxide emissions and the smaller voluntary market is made up of individual smaller companies. These smaller companies and governments purchase carbon offsets to limit their own emissions that are caused by transport and electricity used in other places.
There is, however, a lot of controversy concerning the effectiveness of offsets. Critics claim that offsets camouflage the urgent need to change lifestyles, if the challenge of climate change is to be met. It is claimed that these offsets provide a false sense of being good and doing good, when in reality nothing is being done. A case in point, would be the 221,000 kilowatt hours of energy consumption in the mansion of Al Gore, the director of the documentary on climate change, “An Inconvenient Truth”. This is twenty times more than the national average. Gore conveniently buys offsets to cover his wasteful ways, instead of limiting his use. Critics want to see a shift from consumerism to lifestyles that are sustainable and achieved by shifting from using fossil fuels to renewable energy sources that are non-polluting. They want to see consumers minimize personal emissions and then go beyond and buy offsets. Proponents however claim that it is at least a step in the right direction.
The second point raised by critics, is that forestry projects are in many cases poorly planned and offsets in these cases are carbon neutral at best. They also claim that carbon impounded in trees will eventually be released into the surroundings, where they’ll die. Trees don’t reduce carbon, they merely sequester it as long as they are alive and it cannot be measured accurately in any case. Also, many plantation projects involve clearing existing vegetation, which ends up releasing stored carbon and replanting non-indigenous species die soon after the project is completed. So, while the company may get the offset credit in real value, the trees planted by them are ineffective in controlling greenhouse gases. Hence, the companies end up doing more harm than good. Proponents point out that deforestation makes up 25% of greenhouse emissions, so any efforts to counter that must involve forestry projects. While forest restoration projects generate social and environmental benefits when properly planned, they are only one type of offset activities.
The third point raised by critics, is that offsets are dependent upon baseline emissions. These measure the levels of greenhouse gases that would occur if there was no change made and making these measurements is next to impossible. To accurately take into account all factors which go into emission levels like socio-economic trends, demographic changes, and international policies, is very difficult. Thus, the assessments are nothing more than educated guesses at best. Proponents admit that baseline measurements are vague and future projections do include some uncertainty, but all efforts are made to keep these at a minimum since some sort of a measurement has to be made.
While there are greater numbers of projects in communities which are geared towards emission reduction, it is important to keep standards high so that companies and governments have to work hard to earn their offsets. By making carbon neutrality the aim for not only big businesses, but individuals and small businesses as well and maintaining the most stringent offset standards, meaningful climate steps can be taken.