Carbon Offsets Connection to Solving Climate Change

June 11, 2012

Environmental organizations, I believe, do a notoriously poor job communicating for our audience the positive of what we do, the results we achieve and the change we accomplish, whether they focus on carbon, energy, water, smog, soil or any number of environmental problems. The ability to connect business leaders, consumers and environmental activists with the positive climate results we aim to solve is crucial. I often feel we do a better job highlighting the problem (also critical), but not on sharing the results. So I want to address how carbon offsets, or carbon credits, help reduce the effects of climate change, catalyze encourage low carbon technology and help pave the way to a cleaner, more sustainable environment for all of us.

The first step is to address that a carbon offset represents a reduction of carbon dioxide emissions from a project, in a manner verified by outside third-parties and using outside third-party standards, such as the Verified Carbon Standard, American Carbon Registry and Climate Action Reserve. The paper trail for a carbon offset shows these projects reduced emissions, whether from renewable energy, energy efficiency or forestry. This is one reason we give our supporters the choice of which types of projects to support and why we remain agnostic on which type of project is ‘better’. Carbon dioxide reductions are the goal, not the project type.

It is this connection of the project to the greenhouse gas reduction (carbon offset or carbon credit) that also ties it to solving climate change. Our planet does not care either where we emit carbon emissions or where we reduce them. Bali or Boston, same impact. Climate change is not impacted differently if a reduction comes from within a company’s premises or outside its premises. (This is different for other gases such as SO2, which causes acid rain and has a localized and regional impact, meaning it affects the area nearer to where it is emitted.)

So another benefit, then, is that carbon offsets allow us to direct funds to reducing carbon dioxide emissions in the most cost effective manner. If carbon is carbon is carbon, then making a $100 donation going to reduce ten tonnes of carbon is more efficient than the same amount reducing just five tonnes.

What’s more, this brings about technology transfer and, often, international development. Since many developing countries are very inefficient in how they generate and manage their energy use, reducing emissions in the developing world is often much more cost effective than trying to make a BMW factory in Germany even more efficient than it already is. Carbon offsets enable this transfer of assets to reduce greenhouse gases cost efficiently, while still maintaining the verification and standards necessary to know the reductions are happening.

Carbon offsets also bring more people to the table in terms of education about climate change and engagement in the solution. Most developing countries are not obligated to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions and feel a strong sense they should not have to, while they are still developing (a topic for another day). However, when a carbon offset project comes to Brazil, India or China, local businesses, policy makers and individuals get to learn about and be part of the solution. This creates both knowledge transfer and buy in. And if the company is profiting from the project, which we would hope they are, even better for buy-in.

If we are going to solve climate change in the next few decades and stop a pending disaster, we simply must reduce our emissions substantially, by as much as 50-80% by mid-century. The less scary way of putting this is for us to aim for a 2% reduction in carbon emissions annually, but first we have to stop the growth. Carbon offsets are helping solve climate change in efficient ways by directing these massive investments toward the most efficient carbon reduction opportunity while benefitting both the climate and people.. In our best scenario, this efficiency spurs greater investment than would otherwise occur, which helps drive down the costs of new, clean, low-carbon technologies and projects. Ultimately, if enough investment helps wind, solar or another technology cost less than coal (a debatable figure but also a topic for another day), market transformation will occur based on straight economics and that will be a very good day for our planet, climate and us.