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About Carbon Offsets and How to Purchase Them Wisely

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Climate Change Buzz Words

Climate change has produced its own set of buzz words: Global warming, greenhouse gas emissions, carbon footprint, sea level rise, carbon neutral, sustainability, organic, carbon trading, renewable energy, and eco-everything.

One of the greatest pushes has been for individuals to reduce their carbon footprint, which equates to a person consuming less energy by using fewer resources (cars, air travel, electricity, plastic products) that emit high levels of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, through production and/or use.

Carbon Footprint Reduction

If an individual has lowered his/her carbon footprint as much as possible, but still wants to strive for being carbon neutral (or live without adding to current greenhouse gas levels), a growing trend has been to purchase carbon offsets. A good example is airline travel. Current aircraft technology has high emissions, so when purchasing a ticket, airlines offer the traveler an option to help neutralize these emissions by buying carbon offsets.

Purchasing carbon offsets should be done carefully, with thoughtful consideration of the associated project. One organization, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) offers some suggestions on how to be sure purchasers are really getting what they are buying when they purchase carbon offsets.

Determining Credible Carbon Offset Projects

Although it might sound a bit incredulous, the NRDC's first recommendation is to be sure the project actually exists. Once the project's existence has been confirmed, its verification by a third party will help confirm its authenticity. This third party should also be able to let the purchaser know that the project is enforceable, and if penalties will apply should its terms not be upheld.

The NRDC also recommends ensuring the the project is permanent. Leakage is another consideration in a quality project. Leaking refers to the shifting of carbon emissions from one activity to another, so no gain in emissions reductions is actually achieved. Finally, any carbon offset project should have made a difference, or must be an additional measure that actually helps the environment.

Verifying Projects

Verifying such projects can be tedious, as very few individuals have the funds or resources to conduct their own research by traveling to likely remote locations to visit project sites. The NRDC suggests a few resources to help individuals make wise choices when purchasing carbon offsets.

One organization seeking to reduce its carbon footprint does due diligence in researching these projects before its investment. As a leading Internet search engine company, Google conducts quality investigations of carbon offset projects and offers information on exactly what to look for when purchasing offsets.

Public standards have also emerged to help with the verification of quality projects and have developed into carbon registries. These carbon registries begin issuing carbon credits once a project is verified to have credible greenhouse gas reductions. One metric ton of carbon dioxide reduction equals one carbon credit. The NRDC indicates that among the most trusted is Climate Action Reserve, a company that is committed to setting industry standards and providing project verifications and listings.

Another organization, Green-e Climate, "is the first and only independent third party certification program for retail carbon offsets sold in the voluntary market," according to its website description. The NRDC notes that this site can "help individuals identify reliable carbon offset sellers."

Buying Offsets Simply Means Others Are Reducing Carbon Emissions Instead

NRDC cautions that one thing should noted when purchasing carbon offsets -- buying these offsets means someone else is reducing carbon emissions instead of the individual who is buying them. The first option should always be for individuals to reduce their carbon footprint as much as possible, then invest in carbon offsets to become carbon neutral.

Kimberly Arsenault Kimberly Arsenault serves as an intern at the Cleveland/Bradley County Emergency Management Agency where she works on plan revisions and special projects. Previously, Kimberly spent 15 years in commercial and business aviation. Her positions included station manager at the former Midwest Express Airlines, as well as corporate flight attendant, inflight manager, and charter flight coordinator. Kimberly currently holds a master's degree in emergency and disaster management from American Public University.