Are Carbon Offsets for Real?

Oak Tree in winter

F.T.C. Asks if Carbon-Offset Money Is Well Spent

Carbon Offsets are one of the newest inventions in the search for ways to reduce ones carbon footprint. The idea is that you purchase a number of offsets to compensate for the amount of carbon you are responsible for generating by traveling, building a new house or just day to day consumer purchases. The question is - are they for real?

Well this question has occurred to the Federal Trade Commission as well and they have held a public workshop to start looking into the subject. The FTC's concern appears to be well founded given the potential for fraud. If a company says that they will plant X number of trees which will offset Y pounds of carbon there needs to be verification that the trees are planted. As well, there should be independent confirmation that the trees grow to maturity and the plantation is maintained. I think that accountability and independent verification would be a good thing for the carbon offset market.

However, I wonder if some people may be missing the forest for the trees. If the goal is to reduce your overall carbon footprint then carbon offsets don't do that. A carbon offset just compensates for your existing consumption. Carbon offsets have been compared to indulgences as a way of buying environmental instead of holy righteousness. I think that the analogy isn't far off.

I think that it is at least as effective, and probably cheaper, to find more ways to reduce your fossil energy use and carbon emissions. Increasing home and workplace energy efficiency, choosing the most efficient mode of travel, selecting the most efficient tools and appliances all work directly to reduce your carbon footprint. Conveniently, choosing more efficient products, vehicles, etc. tends to reduce both costs and carbon output in the long run.

If after all of that you still want to do something to soak up some CO2, then you could plant a tree. The best type of tree will depend on your climate, but a native, fast-growing hardwood tree is a good choice.

More Info
FTC - Public Workshop on Carbon Offsets and Renewable Energy Certificates

NYT - F.T.C. Asks if Carbon-Offset Money Is Well Spent

Slate - What kind of tree ... soaks up the most carbon?

Carbon Footprint