Photo: The Truth about Carbon Offsets

We must use energy more efficiently, and switch to renewable energy sources such as wind or solar power (Credit: Lews Castle UHI via Flickr).

By David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

You may have been hearing a lot about carbon offsets, or 'carbon credits', lately. They've become a must-have accessory for individuals and organizations who want to fight climate change and show their green credentials.

Everyone from banks like HSBC, to rock bands like the Rolling Stones, to almost 500 NHL players are purchasing carbon offsets for their emissions.

But what are carbon offsets anyway? And do they really help solve the problem of global warming?

As you know, greenhouse gas emissions — primarily from the burning of fuels such as coal, oil and gas — create heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. (I like to think of the atmosphere as Earth's electric blanket.) These extra gases cause the thermostat of our "electric blanket" to go haywire, a phenomenon known as global warming.

If we are to have any hope of avoiding the most dire effects of global warming, humanity must reduce our collective greenhouse gas emissions. To do this, we must use energy more efficiently, and switch to renewable energy sources such as wind or solar power.

This transition will take some time and effort from the world's political leaders, companies, and citizens. But each one of us can make a difference by taking steps to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

As we make the transition to lower emissions, some of us have unavoidable activities that create greenhouse gases, like flying. Carbon offsets are just one of the tools available to help us compensate for our emissions by making reductions somewhere else.

The concept is pretty simple. A carbon offset is a credit for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions generated by one project, such as a wind farm, that can be used to balance the emissions from another source, such as a plane trip. Because greenhouse gases know no boundaries, it doesn't really matter where the reduction takes place.

For example, I still have to travel by air, which creates a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. (I'm working hard to reduce these emissions by cutting down on my flights, taking trains and buses and giving talks by video conferencing, which I can do from my office.) But for the flights I can't avoid, I calculate the emissions using an online calculator, and then purchase carbon offsets.

Which offsets do I buy? Well, it's important to choose offsets carefully, especially since the carbon offset market is new and mostly unregulated. If you're buying offsets, you should look for marks of quality, like the Gold Standard. Offsets that carry the Gold Standard label are regarded as the highest quality offsets in the world, and help fund new renewable energy projects. They are independently audited to ensure your purchase has a climate benefit. I purchase Gold Standard offsets for all of my flights, and my Foundation uses them too.

But as with anything new, there's been some misunderstanding around carbon offsets. For example, they've been criticized as "papal indulgences", or "buying your way out".

I see it differently. First of all, carbon offset are not an excuse for not reducing our emissions, but using high quality offsets — like those that meet the Gold Standard — can be an innovative way to deal with emissions that you aren't able to reduce yourself. Purchasing offsets can also have an important educational benefit. I've heard from people who've told me they decided to vacation closer to home after calculating their emissions to buy offsets for a trip abroad, and getting a true sense of the climate impact of flying.

In the fight against global warming, the use of market-based tools — like carbon offsets — is here to stay. For example, they are included in the Kyoto Protocol. And for good reason. The world's leading economists, including Sir Nicholas Stern, say that for us to reduce the use of fossil fuels, we must place a price on carbon to take into account the negative climate impact it has. Carbon offsets are a step in that direction. By voluntarily purchasing offsets for your emissions, you are recognizing the true cost of using fossil fuels, and helping to make clean energy sources more competitive.

Carbon offsets are not a silver bullet, but global warming is such a big problem that it requires a whole range of solutions. Carbon offsets are just one of them.

February 22, 2008

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