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A Greener Footprint: How Carbon Offsets Work

To take direct action and reduce your carbon footprint here in the U.S., the most important areas to focus on are electricity consumption and transportation, which total approximately 60 percent of all our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Thus a simple, two-step plan for any household is to first reduce what you can and then use carbon offsets to offset the rest.

What is a carbon offset?

Carbon offsets are reductions of GHG emissions from a project—such as a wind project—that occur some place other than where the offset buyer lives. For example, if your car produces 10,000 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions each year, you can offset your car’s emissions by annually buying 10,000 pounds of carbon offsets from a forest conservation project in the Amazon Rainforest.

Carbon offsets can also be used to offset the GHG emissions from your home’s heating oil, the propane gas used for cooking, the electricity to power your lights or to offset other daily activities such as commuting to work. By supporting carbon offset projects, you make your household carbon neutral while also helping to make carbon offset projects profitable, which leads to even more such projects.

These carbon offsets are generated from a wide-variety of projects including: energy efficiency projects such as the distribution of compact florescent lightbulbs; renewable energy projects such as solar photovoltaic and geothermal; landfill gas destruction projects; and land-use projects such as forest conservation and reforestation activities.

Taking carbon offsets seriously  

It is important to note there are currently hundreds of carbon offset projects around the world employing tens of thousands of people, reducing millions of tonnes of GHG emissions and creating additional benefits such as restoring watersheds, improving local water and air quality, deploying new technologies and preserving habitats for endangered species.

Carbon offsets must be independently verified to leading certification standards such as: the American Carbon Registry; the Clean Development Mechanism; the Climate Action Reserve; the Gold Standard; and the Verified Carbon Standard. This rigorous certification process helps to ensure carbon offsets are real, beyond-business-as-usual (i.e., additional), enforceable, permanent and verifiable (i.e., measurable). If you are buying carbon offsets, always make sure they are certified.

There are compliance-grade carbon offsets, which are supported by companies facing a legal obligation to reduce GHG emissions because carbon offsets can be a strategic, cost-containment mechanism. There are also voluntary carbon offsets, which are supported by millions of individuals around the world and by leading companies such as Microsoft, Dell, Coca Cola and Virgin America.

Brian McFarland, Director, Project Portfolio, Project Origination, Carbonfund.org Foundation, [email protected]

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