Carbon offset not a free pass

Purchasing credits doesn’t cancel emissions, but can contribute to reducing climate change

Holiday travel can significantly increase a person\'s annual carbon footprint and while purchasing offsets can ease the conscience, they shouldn\'t be considered a one-for-one reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
Photo courtesy of Denver International Airport.

If you’re an eco-conscious commuter, the holiday travel may grow your carbon footprint a few sizes — but if you’re also an eco-conscious gift-giver, then ’tis the season to consider carbon offsets in your holiday shopping.


Yet despite the name “offset” — which can mean to “cancel out,” “neutralize” or “redeem,” among other definitions — it may be more helpful to consider carbon offsets as a long-term investment in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, rather than a write-off of the greenhouse gases that your road trip or plane trip have left in their wake. Think of them, perhaps, as part of a holistic approach to a climate-conscious lifestyle.

“There comes a point where you can only take so many steps yourself, and that’s where we typically see offsets coming into play,” says Sheldon Zakreski, director of Portland-based Climate Trust. “You’ve done the best that you can by technology-switching and behavior changes, and to further address your emissions, you can invest in a carbon offset project.”

The nonprofit Climate Trust supports a number of carbon offset activities, including the Colorado Carbon Fund — a program Zakreski says is one-of-a-kind in the nation, offering Coloradans a way to offset their personal greenhouse gas emissions by investing in climate-friendly projects right here in the state. Projects range from solar hot water and solar panels to organic waste composting and landfill methane capture. They benefit public recreation facilities, affordable housing projects and other local community initiatives.

The Colorado Carbon Fund offset calculator helps you measure your carbon footprint — or rather, to estimate it, since even the most complex algorithms can’t precisely calculate all the direct and indirect sources of greenhouse gases from a single person — but the calculator gives a good sense of your overall impact. You can choose to offset your vehicle, air travel, home, or a combination of all three, either using specific personal data or U.S. average data. There’s even an average calculation for a dorm room — ideal for students at eco-conscious University of Colorado Boulder, which is partnering with the Colorado Carbon Fund this year to offset all student-run buildings on campus.

Once you offset through the Colorado Carbon Fund, you may consider purchasing an “Advancing Clean Energy” license plate, because proceeds further offset your vehicle travel. But perhaps the key to having a real impact is to think of it as a symbol of a commitment to a small-footprint lifestyle, not a “license” to spew more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

However, Roger Pielke, Jr., author of The Climate Fix — a critical look at climate change science and policy — and professor of environmental studies at CU-Boulder, says that essentially, that’s what offsets have tended to be.

“Carbon offsets are a way to assuage guilt by those who like to engage in emissions-intensive activities and have spare cash,” Pielke says. “They have no effect on global emissions or climate change. They are a modern-day form of religious indulgence.”

Zakreski acknowledges that carbon offsets cannot offer a precise, one-to-one, carbon-neutralizing tradeoff. But he stands by their value as part of the climate solution.

“They’re definitely not a panacea,” he says, and challenges the idea that only the wealthy and guilty buy offsets, as opposed to those trying to take their climate-conscious lifestyle a step further, regardless of income. And in the modern carbon offset market, there are ways to ensure that your offset purchase is actually invested in reducing greenhouse gases in a meaningful and sustainable way.


Whether it’s the Colorado Carbon Fund or another initiative, Zakreski says it’s important to look for a program that is third-party certified. At the Colorado Carbon Fund, the offsets generated by investment projects are closely monitored, verified by independent third-party groups and regulated via third-party certification standards, such as those developed by the Climate Action Reserve, a leading offset registry serving the carbon offset market.

Other recognized third-party certified options include TerraPass, Sterling Planet and 3Degrees (for businesses). To learn more before you offset, The Carbon Fund’s Responsible Purchasing Guide provides an in-depth understanding of the carbon offset industry’s best practices.

“In the absence of really strict limitations on carbon pollution, it’s important to act now,” says Kasey Krifka, marketing and communications director at Climate Trust. And as for the naysayers?

“They’re kind of throwing their hands in the air and saying, ‘Well, we can’t find a perfect solution so we’re just not going to do it,’” Krifka says. “But reducing emissions and climate impacts is important to do now. There are consequences to not doing it now.”

But if you reside in the People’s Republic of Boulder, then you probably already know that — and you also already pay one of the only municipal carbon taxes on the planet, and probably make a host of other personal decisions toward reducing your impact on the climate. So no need for a sense of guilt and desire for redemption to guide your carbon offset decisions this holiday — rather, a sense of personal responsibility, an acknowledgment of your small contribution to the problem, and your ability to be a meaningful part of the solution.