Individuals are responsible for roughly 5% of all carbon emissions. However, human activities account for almost all the increases in global green house emissions in the last 150 years. It doesn’t sound like much. In fact, you could argue, if you as an individual contribute that little to greenhouse gas emissions, what’s the point of cutting back or even offsetting?
We’ll use a simple analogy: A single drop doesn’t make the rain. But combine a few of those drops, and it becomes a drizzle, then torrential rain causing floods and mudslides.
You get the picture.
While an individual might not contribute much, combined, they contribute a whole lot. These individuals are also part of the big corporations and nations that make the biggest polluters. If we can’t tackle the problem individually, what makes you think we can succeed at a global level?
This simple guide provides a general introduction to allow you become more involved in environmental preservation.
Some of the issues covered include;
- What carbon offsetting is and isn’t
- How to go about it
- The resources to help you offset your footprint
- And the cost of carbon offsetting
Let’s jump right in.
What is Carbon Offsetting
Carbon offsetting is the act of restoring carbon to an equivalent carbon sink. In simple terms, you can think of it as balancing out your carbon emissions.
It’s the reduction of carbon emissions and/or enhancement of carbon sequestration or storage to compensate for an emission, typically associated with travel or consumption, that would not otherwise have occurred had the carbon offsets not been purchased.
Carbon gets into the atmosphere through carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, carbon monoxide (CO), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O). The carbon content in the air is measured in parts per million (ppm); carbon molecules occur in trace amounts.
For instance, if you drive a regular gasoline vehicle, you emit some carbon every day. A typical car emits about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.
You’d need to perform a counter-activity that absorbs or eliminates 4.6 metric tons of carbon per year from the environment when offsetting.
An example would be planting trees or even using more clean energy from renewable sources. You can also trade your carbon with others whose activities absorb more carbon from the environment than they emit.
This, in turn, helps keep carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere from increasing further, which leads to carbon neutral or carbon negative “status.”
Carbon offsetting, as used here, is a term that applies only to individual carbon footprints. While these differences may seem minute, the cumulative impact of carbon trading is a more sustainable environment for future generations.
How to go about it
One popular way to offset your carbon footprint is through carbon trading markets.
Here’s how that would work:
Suppose you produce a tonne of carbon per year. (We’re just using that as an example). If an auction greenhouse gas emissions credit goes for $2 per tonne of carbon, then you’d purchase that to offset your footprint. Your money, in ideal cases, is reinvested in green projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the environment.
Alternatively, you can bypass carbon trading platforms and invest directly in carbon offset projects.
These are sustainable development initiatives that reduce carbon emissions or remove carbon from the atmosphere. For example, reforestation is a carbon offset project because trees remove carbon from the environment and store carbon dioxide in their trunks.
Carbon offset projects are typically registered with a carbon credits system under the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement between many countries to reduce carbon emissions. If the carbon offset is carbon reduction, then it can also be traded on carbon markets.
Carbon offsets are usually purchased in units, which represent one ton of carbon per carbon offset. This amount of carbon is called carbon equivalent, which measures the carbon emissions prevented or removed by implementing carbon offsets.
Many companies offer carbon offsetting, and these firms often purchase carbon credits on behalf of their clients to reduce carbon emissions through carbon trading partnerships. The Kyoto protocol has established an official pricing scheme so that each country can trade their carbon credits in a carbon trading exchange.
This carbon trading scheme allows carbon credits to be traded between different carbon markets, defined based on the location of carbon emissions you will offset.
Carbon emissions can be measured in several ways, including carbon equivalent, total tons of carbon dioxide per year, and carbon intensity (total tons of carbon released per million US dollars).
You can calculate the carbon emissions from your regular activities such as driving, flying, among others here: Carbon Footprint Calculator.
In fact, you can offset your carbon footprint individually or as a group. It’s also worth noting that it’s especially beneficial for people who live in the west and developed nations to offset their carbon footprint because they tend to produce more carbon per capita than people living elsewhere.
What does it mean to be carbon neutral?
If you’re carbon neutral, your carbon cycle has already been balanced. All carbon emissions have either been used, offset, or absorbed back into carbon sinks.
Most carbon offsetting at the individual level is carbon neutral. While carbon offsets go towards carbon-neutral projects and companies, carbon offsetting allows individuals to contribute to carbon-neutral projects and companies financially.
Benefits of Carbon Offsetting
Carbon offsetting can be used for carbon-intensive activities such as air travel, electricity consumption, and shopping.
Carbon emitters who purchase carbon offsets are gaining the ability to continue producing carbon without negatively affecting the environment.
However, it’s worth emphasizing here, before you spring your wallet and buy individual credits, look at the alternatives. Can you plant a tree? Can you find more ways to reduce your carbon footprint, such as driving less, reducing food waste, and recycling more?
If you need ideas, our green living guides can get you started in the right direction.
Offsetting can be beneficial to both carbon emitters and carbon sinks. The carbon emitter gets to continue their daily activities while still feeling like they are contributing to the environment, and the carbon sink gets to gain carbon-storing capabilities that will improve its health.
Therefore, carbon offsetting is an easy way for individuals to help minimize climate change through individual contributions; however, it should not be used as a green-washing technique.
Individuals should still do their part in reducing carbon emissions, making carbon offsetting even more beneficial.