Ensuring Carbon Offsets are Real

The author of today’s post, Sheryl Canter, is an Online Writer and Editorial Manager at Environmental Defense.

Carbon offsets are a good idea that, unfortunately, without guidelines, can be implemented badly. The basic idea is to reduce and then offset the carbon emissions produced by your lifestyle by funding projects that reduce carbon emissions elsewhere. This works because, from a global warming perspective, it doesn’t matter where the carbon comes from. A reduction anywhere reduces the global total.

But how do you know a given offset is truly reducing carbon emissions?

Selling carbon offsets has become big business, but it’s an unregulated business, and it can be a time-consuming challenge for an individual to evaluate whether a given offset is legitimate. Last month Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) asked the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to look into the carbon offset market and consider setting standards. This week FTC chair Deborah Platt Majoras agreed to do just that.

Today’s front page article about offsets in the Washington Post mentions an important area of confusion beyond the simple danger of fraud: renewable energy certificates or RECs. These sound like offsets but they’re not, because without clear rules regarding ownership, the same emissions reductions could be double-counted or sold multiple times.

Environmental Defense has established criteria for valid offsets, and we provide links to high-quality projects that meet our criteria. But ultimately what’s needed is government regulation, and it looks like that finally will happen.

*The links in the last paragraph were updated on Sep 25, 2008.

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  1. Tom Arnold
    Posted August 16, 2007 at 9:03 pm | Permalink


    I was wondering what your thoughts were on the new Green-e GHG protocol that addresses the double counting and additionality issues from domestic renewables?

    Its seems a shame that of four projects two are LFG and two are digesters. We obviously need policy solutions to bring renewables into the mix as well.

  2. Posted August 30, 2007 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Hi Tom,

    Sorry about how long it’s taking to get back to you on this. I was on vacation when you posted your question, and since then I’ve been talking to various people here about it. I will eventually post an answer!

  3. Posted September 6, 2007 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Hi Tom,

    I talked to different people internally and finally I have an answer for you.

    We’re excited about the effort being spent on offset quality and would welcome standards that address double counting, additionality, and other quality issues. However, it’s not yet clear if the latest draft of Green-e’s protocol for renewable energy has been able to do that.

    Moreover, we couldn’t agree more about the need for policy solutions that bring into the mix not just renewables, but all verified reductions. We think the best way to do this is a national cap and trade system with the appropriate financial incentives and quality assurance measures. Once this type of system is in place, the number of offset projects will soar – vastly increasing our ability to quickly and cost-effectively address global warming.

  4. sowheretofromhere
    Posted January 6, 2010 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    I am a neophyte in this field and am thrilled to have located you blog. We recently started adding carbon offsets to our readers and I am delighted for find an authoritative site our readers can go to get more information on the subject.