Why Carbon Onsetting Makes Sense

Institutions interested in becoming climate neutral at some point have to consider buying carbon offsets. Sold by third party suppliers,usually in the form of Renewable Energy Credits (RECs), offsets enable the buyer to claim the environmental benefits of a carbon mitigation project that has been verified and placed for sale on the voluntary carbon market. With the IPCC reporting that we have to reduce global emissions by 80% by 2050 to curb the worst effects of climate change, climate neutral is an ambitious but entirely appropriate goal for organizations that care about future generations. According to Second Nature, over 800 colleges and universities in the United States have signed the American Colleges and University President’s Climate Commitment to be climate neutral by a self selected date, but only three colleges have actually reached this goal, and all three of them have reached it through purchasing carbon offsets. The other schools are all committed to reducing their emissions, but the cost of reduction inevitably grows once the low-hanging fruit has been picked. In other industries the reluctance to achieve carbon neutrality through offsets is similar.

For a lot of people, offsetting feels uncomfortably like greenwashing. You pay someone a few thousand dollars, and in return you get a certificate that says your emissions have been “neutralized” by someone else. But there are problems with this system:

  • Carbon offsetting is inefficient: Because carbon offsets are bought and sold by third party brokers, as much as 70% of the funds goes to third parties for verification, overhead, and profit instead of to the project itself.
  • Lack of “Additionality”: To be valid, carbon offset projects cannot result from “business as usual” and must happen only with funding from offsetters. This is often very difficult to prove and some claim as little as 30% of offsetting projects are, in fact, “additional” and that up to 70% would have happened even without offset funding.
  • Leakage: While standards and measures of accountability have improved, there are persistent concerns around “leakage” where negative environmental impacts of a project are simply moved elsewhere rather than mitigated.
  • Large and Non-local: To achieve an economy of scale, the market is constrained to supporting large projects often at a great distance from offset consumers. As a result consumers are distanced from the impact of their contribution and derive little educational or altruistic value from offsetting.
  • Lack of Trust: Over 50% of respondents to a Point Carbon survey believe offsetting does not produce real reductions and 70% believe offsetting companies are not transparent in their dealings. Only 35% of respondents to a Mintel survey trusted claims of “carbon neutrality.”

Due to these concerns, it’s not surprising that a lot of organizations are hesitant about buying carbon offsets. However, when the means to do something directly about one’s emissions doesn’t exist or is too costly, carbon offsetting is still a useful mechanism to take action on climate change. These situations include:

1. When you have picked the low-hanging fruit: Organizations often run into the problem of diminishing returns when implementing sustainability. After the lowest cost and highest impact projects have been implemented, it becomes increasingly more expensive and difficult to mitigate the next 20% or 50% of one’s emissions. By broadening one’s options, offsetting enables a consumer to pick someone else’s low-hanging fruit so that, overall, the most cost-effective measures are implemented first.

2. When your site is not a good candidate for sustainability projects. Many sites have restrictions on what they can change due to building codes, historic preservation ordinances, or climate limitations. Perhaps you do not own the building and cannot convince the landlord to make changes, and not every site is a good candidate for solar panels or wind turbines. In these situations offsets enables the consumer to be green in spite of legal or physical limitations.

3. When you don’t have the capacity to implement your own projects. Not every organization has the time, skills, or funds to implement a comprehensive sustainability strategy. Offsetting enables you to outsource the more challenging aspects of your sustainability while still being able to claim the benefits. This makes economic sense since it costs less to support existing projects than to start one from scratch.

4. When you have unavoidable emissions. Even employees of the most environmentally conscious organizations still have to commute to work, travel to events, and work in heated buildings. Offsetting can help organizations account for unavoidable emissions that cannot be mitigated due necessity or lack of technology.

Due to situations such as those above, we still need ways to account for our emissions besides direct mitigation. And because of the wide-ranging effects of climate change, we also need to take actions beyond carbon mitigation, such as preserving biodiversity and wildness, developing local and resilient food systems; and deconstructing and replacing the political and economic systems that got us into trouble in the first place. If we cannot do these things ourselves, we need to be able to support those who can, and to pool our individual contributions to make a bigger collective impact.

Recognizing the benefits as well as limitations of carbon offsetting, a new social venture called Earth Deeds has developed a system called “onsetting” to help individuals and organizations who are wary of offsetting but still want to do something about climate change. Started by Daniel Greenberg, who also founded the organization that led my trip to Crystal Waters ecovillage in Australia, Earth Deeds enables customers to calculate their carbon footprint and account for it with sustainability projects of their choice. Because customers can choose projects they already know and trust, the cost of verification can be eliminated and more funds can to towards helping the planet instead of to 3rd party providers.

Instead of buying RECs, Earth Deeds also enables customers to choose projects that are more aligned with their mission or values. For example, an educational institution might support an organic garden that they can also use for interdisciplinary teaching; a retailer of outdoor equipment might support conservation in a local state park; an electronics manufacturer could support electronics recycling in its community. These actions provide additional benefits such as preserving wilderness, increasing recreational opportunities, and educating the next generation. Customers build a relationship in addition to acquiring a certificate, and they have a positive story they can tell of helping the community.

When I was an undergraduate at Smith College, my passion was to get the college to buy RECs to green its power supply. I started a club and a referendum process through the SGA to gather support from the students for offsetting. The referendum received enormous support in that over 80% of the student population voted that they would be willing to add a modest amount to their student fee in order to offset all of the college’s greenhouse gas emissions from energy. Conserving electricity is hard and will only get us so far, offsetting was a one-step action the college could take to become climate neutral immediately.

Since that time, I have learned that there is a great deal to be done at the university to increase energy efficiency, conserve energy, and increase awareness and engagement on sustainability. My approach became that whatever that could be done at the university should be done first before purchasing carbon offsets, which have little direct impact or educational value. But the fact remains that emissions get harder to eliminate the deeper you dig into them, and emissions from students studying abroad, commuting, and faculty and staff travel (which are not insignificant at a university) are left entirely unaccounted for.

To address the problem of offsets but still take advantage of offsetting, some schools have created their own local offset program. Yale University’s sustainability program implemented an alternative offset program where visitors to Yale could offset their travel emissions by contributing to a fund that supported energy efficiency retrofits for residents in New Haven. The program enabled greater reductions in greenhouse gas emissions than the school would have achieved on its own and improved the school’s relationship with the local community. However, it required enormous investment on the part of the school in terms of putting together this program and hiring and maintaining a full time staff member to run it. Earth Deeds employs the same strategy and makes it available via an online platform to customers that don’t have the resources of Yale. Therefore, when Daniel invited me to be a part of the founding team at Earth Deeds, I was happy to accept.

Like offsetting, onsetting is useful because it gives us greater options to do something about climate change. We still should do everything we can to reduce our own emissions, but there are plenty of cases where we are limited in what we can do on our own. We also need to recognize that doing “less bad” is not enough, and that individual actions can alleviate our guilt but is not where we should focus our efforts if we want large scale change. We desperately need solutions in government, in education, in the streets, and everywhere in addition to our own backyard. Carbon onsetting, more than just an alternative to offsetting, is a way to do something together beyond what we can accomplish individually on our own.