Buying carbon offsets
The carbon offsetting industry is suffering somewhat of tarnished image at the moment due to some unscrupulous operators and organizations who start out with the right intentions, but can't deliver. Many well meaning people are wasting their hard earned cash in the belief that their purchase is offsetting their carbon dioxide emission footprint.
The problem with the carbon offset industry is that governments have been slow to react in regulating it and what measures have been in place for certification have often been inadequate. This particularly applies where trees are involved in carbon offset programs.
Offsetting your carbon emissions remains an important gesture and sponsoring the planting of trees is a wonderful way to do so, so here's some tips to help ensure the bucks you spend actually have some benefit to the environment.
The first thing to bear in mind about buying trees as carbon offsets are that they should be considered as a last resort option; i.e. try everything you can to reduce your carbon emissions first, such as the use of CFL bulbs or even LED's for lighting; efficient use of hot water systems; addressing phantom power loads and reducing meat consumption - there's so much you can do that can actually save you money while benefiting the environment.
Many of the tips on GreenLivingTips.com are related to reducing carbon emission reduction. Generally speaking, it boils down to this - consumption = carbon dioxide. The less processing of an item, the less transport, the less carbon emissions are generated.
Having reduced your carbon footprint as much as possible, now it's time to offset what you can't.
I'm all for planting trees, any excuse is good - we've wiped out so many forests in our greed that it's going to take a long time to restore the damage we've done. Where I live, South Australia, we managed to clear around 133,000 square kilometers of bushland for agricultural and other purposes in under 100 years. Much of what wasn't cleared in this state was desert anyway and some of what has been cleared may as well be desert as it's been damaged so badly. One of the best known and once most prolific types of trees in South Australia is the Mallee which take decades to mature.
Carbon offset purchase tips
The following are tips, things to look for and questions to ask a prospective provider to help ensure the environment is benefiting and you are getting your money's worth - not simply lining some entrepreneur's pockets to help them buy a carbon spewing Ferrari :).
- Do some research on the company you're considering buying from via your favorite search engine. Try entering:
When review the results, take the opinions you read with a grain of salt. Is any "dirt" you find specifically about that company or just about carbon offsetting generally? There are plenty of naysayers around.
- A good offset company will also provide carbon emission reduction tips on their site. It indicates a level of passion about the issue rather than just a moneymaking exercise. Beware of any company that is heavy on the feelgood and light on the reality and facts of tree planting.
- What types of trees will be planted? They should be species that won't damage the local ecosystem. Some plantations that use non-native trees create more environmental problems than they address.
- Some offset companies are registered charities, that makes any offsets you purchase a personal tax deduction in most countries; but you'll need to buy them from a local provider. In most countries, it doesn't matter where you buy your offsets from in connection with your business as it becomes an operating expense and will be tax deductible anyway.
- Are the trees you're "buying" actually being propagated from seed, or are they existing trees that were slated for conservation anyway?
- How does the offsetting company or organization record the trees; is there the possibility the same tree is being sold twice? This does happen.
- Is the company definitive in where the trees will be planted? Can they provide any evidence of the planting?
- How long after you've paid your money until the trees will be planted? I've read of some companies obtaining cash for tree planting projects that won't commence for years.
- What's the survival rate of the trees they plant? Nobody can guarantee a seedling will survive through to maturity, so how do they address that issue?
- Will the trees be cut down in the future and what sorts of guarantees are in place that they won't be before they've at least absorbed the CO2 they were meant to? If they are to be utilized, for what purpose? The carbon must continue to be stored in the wood (e.g. building) or wind up in the soil to have made the sequestration of benefit.
- Does the program have any sort of government backing or certification/endorsement from a respected industry association?
- Certificates and bumper stickers are all very nice bonuses in these schemes; but keep your focus on the organization's tree planting practices; after all, you're wanting to spend your cash on offsetting your carbon footprint, not on postage, printing and paper.. and just on that issue; if they do provide a certificate, is it on recycled paper?
- Think global when selecting a provider; that's why it's called global warming, not local warming :). While paying for trees to be planted in your own country is great, there's some excellent tree planting programs in developing countries where given decreased labor costs and favorable exchange rates, you can have more trees planted for your money. Perhaps you can sponsor local projects in one transaction and an overseas project in another. An additional bonus is that you'll also be likely helping an impoverished community. A word of warning though, these tree planting programs in developing countries do tend to be a little riskier, so should be scrutinized carefully. Also check that local indigenous communities have not been forcibly displaced for the planting project.
You really shouldn't need to have to ask the provider all the above questions; most of them should be addressed on their site. The more questions you need to ask, the less likely that it's all above board.
Do bear in mind that a tree's ability to absorb carbon dioxide will greatly vary on location, the type of tree and it may take many, many years before that tree would have absorbed the level of carbon dioxide you've generated in a single year. For that reason, it's important to ensure you deal with reputable organizations who have a real commitment to the industry for the long term, not just those who stick seedlings in the ground and forget about them.
The carbon offset industry is relatively new and as such, it's somewhat of a Wild West scenario where anything goes. Regardless of what the naysayers may spout, buying trees through an ethical offset provider is a valid and beneficial contribution to the environment. Just spend a little time in research and asking questions before you settle on who you spend your cash with. After all, it's not just about alleviating guilt; it's about helping restore the damage we've collectively done to this planet.
Trees are wonderful, but remember: consumption = carbon dioxide; and reducing consumption of non-essential items is the best step any of us can take in addressing global warming.
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