Carbon offset vendors each sell something slightly different. It’s like you are buying a chocolate egg with a prize inside. The eggs are similarly wrapped, so how can the purchaser know what is inside?
Fortunately, with the exception of a few clunkers, the offset vendors are doing good work. So you’re on a shopping trip, looking for the offset vendor that best suits your values. If you’re in a hurry, go ahead and grab the following recommendation off the shelf:Offset vendors and calculators:
• Offsetters.ca – The best Canadian vendor (of two). Its offsets are a collaboration with Climatecare.org, a British offset organization.
• Climatecare.org – Climate Care has numerous small scale projects, one of the few groups with the capacity to fund non-governmental projects. Most of their projects support sustainable energy in places that could not otherwise afford it. They are phasing out carbon sequestration through reforestation.
• Carboncounter.org – the personal offset site for Climate Trust, based in Oregon. Its projects are primarily based on industrial efficiency and renewable energy in Oregon and other states, with some reforestation.
• Nativeenergy.com – Native Energy supports new renewable energy projects. It looks for projects that are community based, and is majority owned by Native Americans. Mostly they build wind farms on the Great Plains, but they have some small scale methane digesters and solar projects.For The Shoppers …What Type of Project Will You Support?
At offset vendor websites, you’ll find descriptions of many projects, allowing you to choose vendors with projects that support your values. Solar and Wind
My preferred offsets support solar and wind technology and industrial efficiency. My first choice is small scale projects that replace fossil fuel usage in off-the-grid locations based on community consultation. Large scale projects can be an clumsy imposition on communities. In North America, which has large-scale grid-based energy consumption, large scale projects seem key.
Recommended offset vendors: same as above.Methane
Methane digesters capture methane, a worse green house gas than carbon, and use it to generate electricity. It’s a win-win: less methane released, less fossil fuel consumed. Large scale projects exist in Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and Chile, mostly supported the Kyoto-based offsets.
The usual methane source is huge cesspools created by industrial livestock operations. There are lots of reasons I don’t eat meat or drink milk from industrial livestock operations, so I avoid putting money into that system given other options. Some methane capture projects, like Native Energy’s, support small scale anaerobic methane digester projects on family farms.
Recommended offset vendor: Native Energy.Forestry
The biggest release of carbon in forestry comes from the soil disturbances at the time of logging. Prevention of logging, particularly of old growth forests with ancient soil reservoirs, is key. Logging old growth forests in Canada contributes over three times as much CO2 to the atmosphere as all the country’s automobiles: about 190 million tons to 50 million tons. Canada has to stop cutting its forests for this and many other reasons. I’d buy offsets that permanently preserve old growth forests if there were any, even though this doesn’t meet the “additionality” criteria for me: we should be doing this in any event!
Global warming is caused by fossil fuels, by which human activities release carbon in quantities sufficient to overwhelm the natural carbon cycle. The solution must include preventing the entry of this heavy load of fossil fuel carbon to the atmosphere.
Reforestation offsets don’t guarantee permanent relief of atmospheric carbon. Trees release carbon through fire, disease, and logging. Their carbon storage is temporary while the fossil fuel carbon in the atmosphere lasts much longer. In addition, reforestation offsets have been used as a subsidy for large-scale plantations which create monocultures and displace forest peoples. Reforestation projects don’t indicate whether they use GMO trees or not, although some tout stock with increased pest resistance.
Some projects promise a certain tree life span, but only World Land Trust promises permanent prohibition of logging. C02 Balance even promises to log before it’s trees are old enough to naturally decay, ignoring the release of massive amounts of carbon dioxide caused by disrupting forest soils. Gordon Campbell’s talk of selling reforestation offsets for BC notably fails to include permanent protection.
Recommended offset vendor: World Land Trust.For The Serious Shopper
At a deeper structural level, vendors put the “Offset” label onto commodities arising from four distinctly different sources: 1) US state regulations created in Renewable Energy Certificates; 2) the Kyoto Protocal created Certified Emissions Reductions; 3) non-governmental carbon reduction initiatives; and 4) voluntary cap-and-trade markets for corporations. Non-governmental carbon reduction initiatives and the Renewable Energy Certificates best suit my goal of supporting sustainable energy sources. Renewable Energy Certificates
Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) are created by the policies of 20 US states which require their power companies to obtain a minimum percentage of their power from renewable energy resources. These state policies are known as Renewable Portfolio Standards. States that rely on non-renewable energy sources meet the standards by purchasing RECs.
As a result of these state standards, renewable power companies created a new product, the REC. The renewable power companies sell their power to the grid in the usual way, because a given quantity of power does the same amount of work regardless of its source. And they sell the REC as a separate product which represents the environmental attributes of the power’s source. Each REC represents one MWh that has been generated by a renewable resource. The Environmental Resources Trust and Green-e certify projects to ensure that an REC is what it is supposed to be, and that it is not sold twice. Power companies that have to meet state standards buy most of the RECs. Carbon offset vendors also buy them to sell to you. Because RECs can only be bought once, they are “retired” by the vendors.
Retiring RECs creates a voluntary price support for an industry that has to compete against “dirty” power companies which, ironically, receive much greater subsidies. Buying this type of offset helps finance the increased costs of green energy producers to make them financially viable. As the demand for RECs increases, renewable energy sources become more cost effective relative to “dirty” sources, a clear carbon benefit.
Vendors’ websites display various projects for which they hold RECs, enabling you to choose what project you want to support. The vendor will purchase RECs from your selected project and retire them. Of the offset vendors that sell RECs, I favour Native Energy, because it provides an economic base for Native Americans in the Great Plains. Also, CleanAirPass (Canadian) buys RECs from other countries until they become available in Canada. Other organizations that sell RECs include Carbonfund.org, AtmosClear Climate Club (whose confusing website refers to RECs as ERCs ), Bonneville Environmental Foundation, Terrapass, and eBlueHorizons. Non-Governmental Renewable Energy Offsets
While some groups advocate RECs as a way to avoid double funding of a project, other groups claim that for a project to be additional (it wouldn’t exist but for your contribution), it must steer clear of these mechanisms. These groups verify their projects with third party reports.
Climate Care in the UK funds its own projects. They have numerous small scale, innovative projects such as treadle pumps for irrigation in India and efficient lights for diesel-powered electricity users in the Marshall Islands. You can support Climate Care through Offsetters Carbon Neutral Society, a Vancouver-based organization.
Climate Trust (carboncounter.org) was organized to meet Oregon laws for new power plants. Most of its offsets are efficiency improvements that support new technologies that are likely to prove useful elsewhere. They have some are international and/or forestry projects.
In the past, we’ve used the Solar Electric Light Fund, but their website doesn’t have a carbon offset section any more. Kyoto-Based Offsets
The Kyoto Protocol resulted in Certified Emissions Reductions (CERs), created by UN approved projects. Developing countries sell CERs to fund sustainable projects and industrial countries buy them to achieve emissions reductions for less money than they could at home. This sounds pretty good, except that the UN has a poor reputation for its failure to adequately ground-truth projects and its historical tendency to disrupt communities by favouring big projects over grassroots. Also, because the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries had their worst level of efficiency in the Kyoto baseline year of 1990, critics note that CERs originating in those countries often represent minimal improvements in efficiency.
But if you want to buy Kyoto-based CERs anyway, they’re available at Global Cool in the UK for CN $45/ton, C02balance (UK, mostly reforestation), AgCert International (Ireland) or atmosfair (Germany). Voluntary Cap and Trade Markets
The Chicago Climate Exchange and Environmental Resources Trust have developed registries by which companies can set voluntary carbon emission reduction goals and then trade reductions with other companies. The Chicago Climate Exchange trades Chicago Climate Exchange Credits or CCECs. The Environmental Resources Trust trades RECs. Companies with inexpensive options for reducing their emissions sell their “extra” reductions to companies that would not otherwise meet their targets. Companies like Dupont, Ford and Motorola participate in these exchanges. The registries see themselves as a proving ground for future mandatory “cap and trade” programmes. The offsets have a corporate flavour, but the cap-and-trade system is one of the more politically viable solutions and worthy of some support.
You can retire Chicago Climate Exchange Credits through Carbonfund.org, DriveNeutral.org, Carbonneutral.com, CleanAirPass (Canadian) and Terrapass.For the REALLY Serious Shopper
The consumer guide found at www.cleanair-coolplanet.org/ConsumersGuidetoCarbonOffsets.pdf
gives a good discussion of the pros and cons of nine vendors. Page 39 lists all the offset organizations. My Recommendations
My recommendations reflect a preference for sustainable energy sources, a lukewarm enthusiasm for the cap-and-trade markets, and a full scale avoidance of Kyoto-based and reforestation offsets. I like the small scale, grassroots projects in less developed countries, and I like subsidizing the North American renewable energy market by retiring RECs.