Clearing Up the Carbon Offset Confusion

Carbon Offsets, Their Importance and How The Are Certified

Airplane leaving contrail and carbon emissions.

If you’re an average green traveler, you’re likely a little baffled by the vast options available to you in the world of carbon offsets. You want to do your part by balancing any carbon dioxide you emit during your travels, but you’re not quite sure where to start. That’s why you’re here where you’ll find everything you need to make an informed decision about buying carbon offsets.

Why buy carbon offsets?

We’re not yet able to power airplanes with hope and good will, and with only marginal variations in fuel efficiency from one plane or airline to the next, the consumer has little control over the size of his or her carbon emissions when flying.


Until it’s possible to compare flights like we do light bulbs (CFLs, LEDs, or incandescent), there are few ways for you to adjust your actions to reduce your air travel carbon emissions. Whether you just want to take a beach vacation but don’t want to feel guilty about your greenhouse gas emissions, or you’re a busy business person who regularly flies out of town for meetings, carbon offsets make it possible to take control over the size of your traveling carbon footprint.

Carbon offset basics

First, let’s define what carbon offsets are. Simply put, an organization with a project that reduces greenhouse gas emission in the atmosphere (say, a wind farm) will package carbon dioxide emission reduction units into credit bundles that can be purchased as carbon offsets. It’s a win-win relationship between provider and consumer—you benefit by being able to symbolically neutralize your carbon-producing activity and the organization benefits by receiving funds that make their project more economically viable.

Generally, you purchase carbon offsets based on the projected quantity of carbon dioxide equivalents you expect to emit during your travels. 

Most carbon offsetting providers will provide a calculator for estimating the carbon footprint of your particular trip, though you should be aware that they vary widely in their outcomes.

What makes a carbon offsetting company trustworthy?

Though there are now dozens, if not hundreds of carbon offsetting companies out there, not all are created equally. The last thing you want to do is purchase emissions that fail to achieve your green goals, so here are some questions you should be asking when evaluating one carbon offsetting company against the other:

  • Current projects: First and foremost, you want credits for projects that can be physically identified by an address. Ask where the methane capture plant or solar farm is located to be sure you’re investing in a bona fide project.
  • Additional/future production: Of equal importance is that your money go to supporting new or future projects that benefit the environment, not existing ones. Once a renewable energy facility or carbon capture project has been completed, it should operate profitably and not need subsidies from consumers, so ask whether your money will be going to adding new carbon-positive projects. Just be sure there are also measures in place (insurance, for instance) to ensure that future projects are actually completed.
  • Green certification: Several reputable organizations now certify carbon offsets so that you can be sure that measurable standards are followed by the organization you’re supporting and that the carbon offsets you purchase were sold only once to you (and not sold again to another consumer). One hundred percent of the carbon offsets you purchase should be certified and quantified accurately.
  • Permanence: Many offsetting companies will credit some or all of their credits through tree planting or agricultural soils projects. While these are beneficial, be sure that there are measures in place to ensure these projects do not make up more than 20% of your offsets and that they offer lasting, permanent value.

That’s a lot to absorb, but if you want a simple, easy way to determine whether a carbon offsetting company is legit, look for certifications from recognized standard keepers. Here are some you can trust:

  • The Gold Standard: Operating under Swiss law, The Gold Standard Foundation is a certification scheme for quality carbon offsets that promote transparency and equality of access for all market participants.
  • The Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX): A North American cap and trade system for six greenhouse gases that also facilitates transparency in the industry.
  • Clean Development Mechanism (CDM): Developed under the auspices of the United Nations, the CDM is a structure that allows projects in developing countries to earn certified emission reduction (CER) credits to meet a part of the Kyoto Protocol reduction targets they have adopted.
  • Voluntary Carbon Standard (VCS): In order to be independently certified with the VCS, a global organization established by The Climate Group, projects must be real, new/additional, measurable, permanent, and unique.
  • Green-e: This US-based organization certifies and verifies projects with three programs. Green-e Climate is a system for offsets sold in the voluntary market that offers consumer-protection and environmental-integrity. Green-e Energy monitors and certifies projects independently for renewable energy. And Green-e Marketplace is used by businesses to demonstrate their purchase of carbon offsets.
  • International Carbon Reduction and Offset Alliance: This global organization establishes best practices and encourages the use of real, verified, permanent, additional, and unique carbon offsets.

For more information on specific carbon offset companies you can trust we've compiled a list of reputable companies that sell carbon offsets.


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