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How to offset your environmental impact the right way

The challenges facing our planet can sometimes feel (really, really) overwhelming, and actual solutions to climate change will require collective global and institutional action. But there are still things individuals can do.

In this post, we'll take a look at one of them: carbon offsets. What does offsetting really mean, and does it make sense for you? 

What it means to offset your impact 

Carbon emissions are tied to almost everything we do: the way we commute, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the electricity we use, and more.

Some of that carbon is in the form of carbon dioxide, which humans and animals produce just by breathing—as you may remember from high school biology. Other activities, like driving and heating your home, produce additional harmful carbon gasses like methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases. All of these can trap heat in the atmosphere, causing global warming. 

That's why offsetting has become so popular. When you buy carbon offsets, you pay to take planet-warming carbons out of the atmosphere in exchange for the greenhouse gases you put in. 

But what does that look like in practice?

Let's say you take a roundtrip flight from LA to New York. That long trip produces a ton of greenhouse gases—about 20% of what your car emits over an entire year. As a result, you may decide to donate money towards an offset project dedicated to replanting trees, which absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Some airlines offer offsets directly, or you can buy them through offsetting organizations.

Reputable offset organizations will calculate the carbon footprint of your activities, then counter that impact with specific environmental efforts that remove an equal amount of carbon from the atmosphere. They do this by investing in carbon offset projects like renewable energy, forestry, or developing new technologies that help reduce greenhouse gases.

Types of offsets

The four types of projects below are the most popular, but they certainly aren't the only types of carbon offsetting projects. There are countless other ways organizations are working to erase carbon from the atmosphere, and new innovations are happening all the time.

Renewable energy projects

For a green energy source to be considered renewable, it must be readily replenishable or self-sustaining. Energy sources like wind and solar are virtually inexhaustible for example. Renewable energy carbon offset programs work to divert energy reliance from greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels to renewable energy.

Forestry and conservation projects

Trees are one of the planet's best defenders against climate change. During photosynthesis they absorb carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas responsible for global warming. (Hello again, high school biology.) Forestry and conservation offsetting projects plant trees or prevent deforestation.

Carbon capture and combustion projects

Removing existing carbon from the air will be an essential part of getting our planet to net-zero emissions. But natural solutions like planting trees and expanding wetlands only go so far. Carbon capture technologies can be used at both the sources of carbon dioxide, such as power plants and factories, and in the wild, through systems known as direct air capture. 

Reduced emissions projects

Because lower energy consumption translates to fewer emissions, energy efficiency projects use carbon offset funds to make systems, buildings, or even entire towns, run as efficiently as possible.

A note about carbon credits

A lot of people think carbon credits and carbon offsets are the same. While both are designed to reduce emissions, carbon credits—sometimes known as carbon compensation—are permits that a company can buy, sell, or trade to allow a certain level of future emissions. Offsets, on the other hand, are used to eliminate existing emissions. They can be purchased by individuals or businesses.

Other ways to make a difference

There are lots of ways to minimize your carbon footprint. To get the best results, balance your efforts to offset your carbon footprint with everyday changes to reduce emissions.

Some of the steps you can take include,

  • Swearing off single-use plastics.
  • Researching before you buy. The fashion and textiles industries are some of the biggest polluters on the planet. Support sustainable brands or buy second-hand.  
  • Recycle and compost what you can.
  • Use offsets from reputable organizations to minimize the impact of your flights. Some airlines do it on their own, but you can also use trusted organizations, like Cool Effect and Gold Standard.
  • Figure out your carbon footprint and work to reduce it. Check out the EPA’s Carbon Footprint Calculator for inspiration.
  • Use products and services that continue to make a difference over time, like hai smart showerheads and PLUS soaps. Seek out brands committed to energy efficiency.

When carbon offsets go wrong: what to look out for 

Carbon offsets can make a big difference for the planet when combined with eco-responsible actions, but they’re not a magic pill that will make climate change go away. In fact, carbon offset abuse is a common form of greenwashing—i.e., when companies use misleading marketing and PR to project an eco-responsible image while continuing to damage the planet. 

Here are a few examples of carbon offsets gone wrong:

  • When companies use them to distract from their bad environmental behavior;
  • When offsets support pointless causes that don't actually reduce emissions;
  • When an offset firm doesn’t fulfill its promises;
  • When an offset project has a great debut but isn’t sustained over time.

A global community effort

“There are no passengers on spaceship earth. We are all crew.” – Marshall McLuhan

While there is much we can do as individuals and local communities to combat the devastating effects of global warming, carbon offset programs and incremental efforts are just part of the big picture. The only way we’re going to make a real difference is through a united, global effort.

That means significant regulations from governments worldwide to limit dependence on fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It means coordinated efforts from large industries to shift to renewable energy sources. It means working together to create a sustainable future for our planet.

Together, we have the power to make a change.