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New To Sustainability? Here’s An Explainer On Carbon Offsets

01.13.2023 — The Frenshe Editors

It is hard to live in the 21st century and not be aware of climate change. Whether you have been impacted by eco-anxiety or not, it’s likely that you have heard of a carbon footprint and carbon offsets at some point or another, but what do these things really mean, and are they even effective? 

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There has been much debate on whether carbon offsets work, or if they are actually making the climate crisis worse. We’ve sorted through the conflicting information online to hopefully provide a simplified explanation:

Carbon Offsets: What is it?

A carbon offset, according to the UNFCCC, is an action that can be taken by both companies and individuals “to compensate for the emissions they cannot avoid by supporting worthy projects that reduce emissions somewhere else”, like planting trees. 

How does it work?

This is a climate action that can be taken to voluntarily reduce, remove or prevent the release of CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions. The idea behind it is that companies and individuals can buy and trade credits to supplement other climate actions they are taking to reduce their emissions. 

The keyword here, however, is “supplement”. Many offset projects do not come close to achieving the benefits they promise, and even well-designed projects can fail due to circumstances outside of their control. 

Carbon offset initiatives have also come under criticism because the regulations around them aren’t all that clear or cohesive, which in turn has created false accountability. A lot of companies buying offset credits have made no effort to otherwise reduce their footprint

So, why should you care about it?

For now, the effectiveness of carbon offset projects remains in question, but that’s not to say you can’t or shouldn’t invest in these initiatives. Groups like The Gold Standard or Green-e can help you find worthwhile projects, but think of it more as a donation than actual carbon neutrality.

The agreement reached by the UN in 2022’s COP27 to provide funding for countries most affected by climate disasters shows an incredible step in the right direction. It’s important to remember, however, that in order to make an actual difference long term, we require better regulation on carbon offset initiatives, implementing a carbon tax for the biggest polluters, and investing in clean, alternate sources of fuel and energy.

A while back, we spoke to co-founder of Future Earth about reducing your carbon footprint, and though individual action is still important, the biggest takeaway from our conversation should be to go vote

Carbon offsetting is a great concept, but ultimately meaningless if companies can use it as a “get out of jail free card”, and that won’t change if the law doesn’t.

The Frenshe Editors