Buying carbon offsets might truly be the world’s worst shopping experience. Here’s what we’ve learned, and how we’re making it easier to access high-impact carbon offsets with Joro.
The first time I tried to buy carbon offsets was when I attempted to offset our wedding guests’ travel in the spring of 2018. I spent over four months and several gray hairs calling up project developers, fact-checking verifiers, and getting increasingly frustrated with the lack of transparency. Through that process, I realized just how many bad offsets are out there - and how difficult it is for a consumer like me to discern the good from the bad. Like me, many people are beginning to consider buying carbon offsets to compensate for their own emissions. For those who have the means and want to draw down their personal emissions to net zero, a responsible, effective offsetting strategy is essential. We believe that a good place to start in defining a responsible offsetting strategy is to align with the Oxford Principles for Offsetting:
- Understand your current emissions
- Take steps to cut your own emissions and minimize the need for offsets
- Support high-impact projects that reduce and remove carbon
Download the Joro app to put your climate action practice on auto-pilot, by reducing your footprint and by purchasing high-quality offsets to compensate for what you can’t reduce yet.
And no matter where or when you choose to buy carbon offsets, this guide we break down what they are, how to select them.
What are carbon offsets?
TL;DR: A carbon offset is created when one metric ton of greenhouse gas emissions is reduced.
Companies, governments, and people can buy carbon offsets to compensate for the emissions they create by investing in projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Carbon offset projects come in many shapes and types. They include reforestation projects, which pay for trees to be planted to absorb greenhouse gases; renewable energy projects, which pay to finance clean energy to replace dirty energy on the grid; and even direct air capture projects that use machines to suck carbon dioxide out of the air. Any project that reduces greenhouse gases could be a form of carbon offsetting.
What should I look for in a carbon offset?
Not all carbon offset projects are created equal. A carbon offset is a unit of emissions, usually a ton of carbon dioxide equivalent, that you pay to be avoided, reduced, or removed somewhere else in the world, to make up for emissions you’ve caused. However, there are many valid criticisms of carbon offsets. At their worst, carbon offsets do not provide the carbon reduction or removal they purport to, and instead, are seen as a “license to pollute” by consumers, who proceed to cause even more emissions than they did before. For instance, if a forestry project isn’t as permanent as it says it is, the forest that should be sequestering greenhouse gases could unexpectedly lose trees due to neglect, disease, or logging. Reports find that offset programs in general dramatically overestimate their impact.
First, you want to make sure that any carbon offset project you’re considering supporting crosses the basic hurdle of actually avoiding, reducing, or removing the carbon emissions it claims to. To ensure the integrity of a carbon offset project, look for:
Verifiability: The carbon reduction or removal must be measured or rigorously evaluated by a trustworthy, independent third party.
Enforceability: The offset vendor must provide evidence that the carbon credits issued from a project are sold once and retired. Credits must be backed by a contract that defines exclusive ownership.
Additionality: A project must demonstrate strong evidence that it’s not taking credit for carbon reduction or removal that would have happened already, without the project.
Permanence: A high-quality project’s carbon reduction or removal is hard to reverse. At the very least, projects should demonstrate evidence that they will protect carbon reductions for the duration of the project; as much as possible, look for projects with longer durations.
Transparency: Look for transparency in fee structure, documentation, and operational efficiency.
Second, consider if the project is contributing to the kind of world you want to live in, and to the ecosystem of solutions we need to create a future for all life to thrive. The best projects prioritize::
Supply Chain Efficiency: Use your dollars to help create an efficient and direct market for offsets. Joro favors options that provide a higher percent of overall cost to project owners.
Scalability: Look for projects that can meaningfully contribute to reducing global emissions in the next 30 years. Checking if the solution you are supporting is on the list of Project Drawdown Solutions is a good place to start.
Catalytic Potential: Where possible, look for projects that would be hard-strapped to find funding without your dollars, and where you can advance innovation, demonstrate replicability, or inspire similar future projects.
Ecosystem Benefits: Many carbon offset projects create benefits to natural ecosystems beyond carbon reduction, including conservation, biodiversity, and climate adaptation benefits.
Community Benefits: The climate crisis presents enormous equity and justice challenges. Jor prioritizes projects that will benefit the poor and vulnerable populations who are affected most by changing climates.
Download the Joro app to access a carefully-curated set of projects that meet all of these criteria, evaluated, monitored, and managed for you.
Do offsets work?
TL;DR: In theory, offsets work; in practice, poor quality, moral hazard, and equity issues are real risks. Overall, we believe offsetting using high-quality projects is better than not offsetting at all, especially when paired with reduction.
By paying for high-quality offsets, people can play an important role in financing projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
However, supporting bad offset projects can be worse than not paying for offsets at all. Ineffective offset projects divert capital from truly useful emissions reduction initiatives. They also erode trust, and make people feel that the climate crisis is insurmountable.
Furthermore, relying solely on offsets can be distorting. They can make people feel that they can continue to produce greenhouse gases, because they are paying for their guilt to go away. This is a classic example of moral hazard, which occurs when someone has an incentive to take risks that make a system worse off overall because they do not bear the full costs of that risk.
They can also exacerbate equity and justice issues. If rich people can continue to pay to pollute, poor people will continue to bear the worst consequences of the climate crisis. A more sustainable future is one in which we all adapt our lifestyles in moderate ways to result in a just and thriving future for everyone.
We believe that offsetting can be effective when it supports high-quality offsets and when we pair it with reduction. The best way to move to a low-carbon future is to build a society that simply uses less fossil fuels.
Just as companies create reduction plans and offset to compensate for what they can’t at first reduce, people can be most effective by taking a reduce and offset approach.
How should I buy an offset for my flight?
One of the first reasons people think about buying an offset is for a flight. It makes sense - air travel is one of the most carbon-intensive activities we engage in. A single, round-trip flight from New York to San Francisco emits more carbon per person than a whole month of eating, drinking, shopping, commuting, and paying utilities.
Whenever possible, opting for a grounded mode of transit can create huge carbon savings. Especially during the pandemic, many of us have rediscovered the joys of taking a roadtrip with close family and friends.
But there are some times you just have to get on a plane. When you do fly, take a look at our insider tips to minimize the impact of your flight (hint: layovers aren’t just annoying, they’re bad for the planet). Once you’ve made sure your impact is manageable, you can also purchase carbon offsets to compensate for the emissions of your flight.
Should you buy an offset directly from your airlines? The benefit of offsetting through your airline, if they offer the option, is convenience. Some airlines even offer relatively accurate calculators so you can estimate and offset your exact flight, not just a generic fee.
However, the downside of going through your airline is that you have very little transparency on the offsets you’re buying. Because the carbon offset market is not regulated, most airlines buy into low-cost, short-lived carbon offset projects with little accountability and limited likelihood that you are actually buying the carbon reduction you would like to achieve.
That’s why we’ve made it possible to offset flights directly through the Joro app. Instead of spending, say, $5 to offset that NY to SFO trip through your airline with no guarantee that your money is going to make a difference, consider spending closer to $10 to buy into vetted projects, backed by evidence and analysis, to have confidence that your dollars actually make a difference. Joro only takes a $1 transaction fee on flight offsets to cover our costs, so you can feel confident that your money is going to the projects you want to support.
Offset a flight with Joro
A Footnote on Language: The term “carbon offset” describes emissions avoided, reduced, or removed that someone pays for to compensate for emissions they’re responsible for. The nice thing about the world “offset” is that it’s an understandable shorthand. The problem with “offset” language is that it implies an equivalency between carbon we pay to avoid, reduce, or remove, and carbon that we simply cease to emit in our own lives. That’s what we hope and attempt to ensure happens, but in reality, offsets are imperfect. No matter how much research and vetting we’ve done, it is near-impossible to guarantee perfect 1-to-1 equivalency. “Carbon credit” is potentially a more accurate term, because it doesn’t imply this equivalency.
Sources: 1. Overseas Development Institute Clean Development Mechanism, 2009. 2. National Resources Defense Council, 2016. 3. 3 Degrees Carbon Offset Claims Guidance, 2019. 4. Oxford Principles for Net Zero Aligned Offsetting, 2020.