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A New Shade of Green

By Sherry Listgarten

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About this blog: Climate change, despite its outsized impact on the planet, is still an abstract concept to many of us. That needs to change. My hope is that readers of this blog will develop a better understanding of how our climate is evolving a...  (More)

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Offsetting your 2020 emissions

Uploaded: Dec 13, 2020
For the last 4-5 years, at the end of the year, I’ve been offsetting our household’s carbon emissions. It's easy and not too expensive. In fact, it's so easy that I started doing this before doing much on my own emissions, which is what you aren't supposed to do, but it worked for me. I think of it as a charitable donation to the Earth, though the best offsets also provide important near-term benefits to people or animals.

I do this even though there are problems with carbon offsets. I’ve written about them before, but here are some examples:

1. You buy offsets in a project that is protecting a forest from logging. The forest burns down. This is a problem with “permanence”.

2. The forest doesn’t burn down, but the forests next to it, the unprotected forests, see extra logging. This is a problem with “leakage”.

3. You buy offsets in a project that is building a wind farm. The wind farm is in fact profitable so would have been built anyway. This is a problem with “additionality”.

4. You buy offsets in a project that is flaring methane leaks. The facility starts leaking more methane so they can earn more offset money by flaring. This is a problem with a “perverse incentive”.

5. You buy offsets in a project that is putting more efficient cookstoves in homes. But people end up returning to their familiar open-pit cooking area and no one notices. This is a problem with “verification”.

Critics say carbon offsets are an unfortunate distraction from the work we should be doing.

As you can imagine, organizations that qualify and recommend offset projects are familiar with these objections and try to correct for them, for example by:

1. Independently verifying CO2 reductions of the changes they are making.

2. Tracking projects over an extended period of time.

3. Buffering their offset pool to account for problems (e.g., forest fires).

4. Ensuring that the local community finds a meaningful win in the new system, to increase permanence. For example, maybe odor is eliminated by implementing a new waste composting system.

5. Developing co-benefits beyond carbon emissions, such as enhanced animal habitat. These qualitative wins can soften problems with unavoidable uncertainties in offset calculations.

But despite these efforts, there are no perfect offsets. The Stockholm Environment Institute publishes a comprehensive guide to offsets, including the list on the left of the types that tend to be lower risk.

Let’s consider a “lower-risk” project, namely destroying refrigerants, which have an outsized impact on global warming in addition to depleting ozone. We handle these very carefully in the United States, but not all countries do. Offset provider Tradewater’s mission is to collect these substances in countries with no policy and carefully destroy them. Sounds good, and it’s what I bought this year.

But it’s hardly perfect. My offsets happened to come from a project in Ghana. What if the effect of this work is that Ghana decides not to pass its own “cleanup” policy for refrigerants because it’s cheaper and more convenient to have high-minded foreigners come in and do the cleanup for them? Are we really saving the day or just moving the problem around? Even the best offsets can have dampening effects on emissions reductions.

The thing is, few of us are zeroing out our emissions immediately. Maybe we are waiting a few years for a cheaper EV or more people who can install heat pumps. Or maybe it’s proving hard to change our diet. Offsets can mitigate the impact of emissions that are taking time for us to reduce. In the context of climate change, I am for anything that buys us more time. (1)

For example, I like cookstove projects. Stockholm sees those as “medium risk”. But when done properly they change how families cook, reducing emissions while providing other important benefits.

Testimonials from a Cool Effect cookstove offset project in Honduras

To reduce the risk of these offsets, good organizations will ensure the new stove is a fixture in the house (e.g., brick and mortar), and that it is the only stove in the house. They will come back periodically to make sure it’s working and being used. Over time, as the family appreciates the cleaner air in the house, the faster cooking time, and the reduced cost of the fuel, it becomes something they won’t go back from. The project accelerates a cultural change away from inefficient and unhealthy open-fire cooking. The new generation becomes familiar with cooking on a stove, and will find it easier to move to clean-powered electric stoves when they become available.

Information about a cookstove offset project in Mexico

Waste management practices, such as with methane capture or composting, can also work in the same way, melding emissions reduction with a cultural change. So can forestry management. With a good set of co-benefits and local buy-in, these offsets bring about near-term, long-lasting improvements for people and the planet.

Testimonials from a Cool Effect methane capture offset project in China

Quality projects come with ample (and I do mean ample) documentation, describing both the opportunities and the challenges of the projects. Here is the documentation for the project in Ghana that I funded this year, to destroy refrigerants. Multi-dimensional projects that are embedded in communities, like this award-winning preservation project in Zambia that I funded last year, have even more documentation. Still, it can be hard to know what is reliable. Even the Nature Conservancy has been criticized for selling meaningless offsets.

My advice: If you are interested in offsetting your emissions, don’t aim for perfection. Find a project that you like, that meets reputable standards, that makes sense to you, that you think can reduce emissions and do some good. Then take a guess at your household emissions for the year (probably between 10-40 tons per person) and make a contribution. There are good projects out there that are doing some good. Offsetting should not be mistaken for absolution. It’s more like a charitable donation to the Earth, a way of buying some time for your harder-to-reduce emissions. (2)

There’s a reason this is not my last post of the year. The emissions reductions work that only we can do happens in our own households. So I will end the year with a post about creating new habits that lower our own emissions. Emissions reductions made now have a much bigger impact than emissions reductions made later, so we all need to get moving on what we can do in our own homes, some of which is really easy. I’m excited to share next week some of my own successes and not-so-successes from this past year, and thoughts on next year.

Notes and References
1. In fact some researchers have been looking at incorporating time into the value of offsets, as you can see in this estimation tool. My guess is that the discount rate is pretty big, making the shorter-term offsets a relatively good value, at least for purposes like mine.

2. One of the difficulties with carbon offsets is that they are very often used by companies to negate carbon emissions in order to meet pledges they have made to reduce their emissions. Offsets are specifically designed to meet that standard, but there are numerous ways they can fall short. Because of that, the use of offsets is often restricted to a small portion of any pledged emissions reductions. California’s cap-and-trade system tightened up on offsets a few years ago: “The offset usage limit will decrease to 4% (from 8%) for 2021-2025 emissions, and then increase to 6% for 2026-2030 emissions. Starting with 2021 emissions, no more than one-half of the quantitative offset usage limit may be sourced from projects that do not provide direct environmental benefits in California. Offset credits must be real, additional, permanent, verifiable, quantifiable, and enforceable.” United Airlines recently announced that it will be switching its focus from carbon offsets to removing carbon from the atmosphere. CNBC quotes its CEO as saying: “(Offsetting) may feel good in the short term but the math just doesn’t come close to adding up.”

Household donations imo are different, in part because they are not material to a contract, they are smaller in scale, and they can reflect personal values beyond emissions reductions. But carbon removal is available for those households that want to splurge for it.

3. I’ve often wondered why there aren’t carbon offsets for energy efficiency projects, where you could provide capital for insulating homes and similar. I think it’s related to energy efficiency being profitable over time and so not qualifying for offsets. Interestingly, Steve Wozniak and others have developed a cryptocurrency designed to fund energy efficiency, where the investors (currency holders) would receive some of the returns. I do not understand all of it, but it’s an interesting alternative to offsets…

Current Climate Data (October/November 2020)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)

The world had its warmest November ever this year. “According to Copernicus scientists, global average temperatures during November were 1.4 degrees (0.77 Celsius) above 1981-2010 levels, beating the previous warmest November by a large margin.”

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Posted by nancygrove, a resident of Atherton: West Atherton,
on Dec 13, 2020 at 8:11 am

nancygrove is a registered user.

Another great post, Sherri! I particularly like your description of the downside risks of offset projects--the generic terms used to describe them are so non-descriptive and eminently forgettable.
One option, which I like and my family uses, is a bit different from offsets but quantifiable, verifiable, and traceable. We buy "allowances" from Carbon Lighthouse Association (Web Link which, for each allowance, removes and permanently retires 1 ton of CO2e from the RGGI cap and trade market (a compulsory carbon market in the states of Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont.) They used to offer allowances for purchase at CA's cap & trade market also. The reason that they may have stopped is that CA apparently issued too many allowances when our cap & trade was first set up, so prices have not gone up and emissions are not going down, as I understand it. This would be a great topic for another post some time. You can contact the Association if you wish to purchase Renewable Energy Certificates (REC's) in the CA market.

Your point that offsets (and allowances) allow households to make a positive step when the next big carbon reduction commitment is financially still a bit out of reach is exactly right. It's the same thing the carbon markets themselves do, when operating efficiently.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Dec 13, 2020 at 9:18 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Nancy, what an interesting idea! I will take a look. You are exactly right about cap-and-trade. I tried to cover it in this series of posts, but admittedly the first two are a little obscure... On the plus side, California's price is much higher (around $17) than that of RGGI (around $6). And neither is close to what they should be. These markets are a work in progress.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Dec 13, 2020 at 9:26 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

BTW, one possibly counter-intuitive thing I forgot to mention in the post is that reducing your emissions is often cheaper than buying offsets. Energy efficiency, for example, will save money though it sometimes has a high upfront cost. If a household has a choice between buying offsets or buying a smart thermostat, the thermostat is definitely easier on the budget. In fact, buying the thermostat allows you to buy *more* offsets over time. I was thinking about this when walking the dog this morning, and wish I'd made more of a point about it in the post. Anyway, more on this in the next post...

Posted by Rvengosh, a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle,
on Dec 13, 2020 at 9:27 am

Rvengosh is a registered user.

Excellent article. Thank you.

Do you know of a publicly available direct carbon air capture offset?

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Dec 13, 2020 at 9:32 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Yes! Check out Climeworks.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Dec 13, 2020 at 10:26 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

One thing I noticed, on the site that Nancy links to, is the carbon calculator is very inadequate. You can find a much better but still simple one here. Keep in mind that, as with most such calculators, it still doesn't include "consumption emissions" (the emissions emitted to produce the new things you buy and the services you use).

Posted by Ellen, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows,
on Dec 16, 2020 at 9:01 pm

Ellen is a registered user.

Here's another idea, Sherry. Not exactly an offset, but can be used the same way. We donate to They raise funds and assist with the logistics of solar installations for non-profits. Most non-profits don't have the extra money to install solar energy, and usually donors want their funds to go directly to the charity's mission. Giving to Everybody Solar helps reduce emissions and allows the charity to reduce their expenses for utilities. Check out the website. There are several projects needing funds now. All projects are in the USA.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Dec 17, 2020 at 8:47 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Ellen, that's a really nice idea, thanks for sharing.

Posted by Rachel G, a resident of Rex Manor,
on Dec 28, 2020 at 10:13 am

Rachel G is a registered user.

Hi Sherry,

Thank you for such a thoughtful and thorough column! I really appreciate all the time and effort you put into providing us with so much information and perspective.

I have a question about offsets that I have never found an answer for and I'm wondering if you know the answer or know how to find out: What is the total capacity of all of the offsets combined? For example, if the global greenhouse gas emissions are approximately 40 billion metric tons of CO2e per year (my number is probably wrong, but maybe close), would it be possible to offset 40 billion metric tons of CO2e each year?

I don't know for sure, but my guess is that the answer is no, and if we humans want to get down to zero GHG emissions, we will probably need to use direct capture and sequestration methods such as what Climeworks is doing, in addition to all of the other efforts to reduce emissions and create and preserve carbon sinks.

I'm interested in the significance of the price difference between offset programs, such as Tradewater's at $15 per ton of CO2, compared with CO2 capture, where Climeworks charges about $1,000 per ton of CO2 captured. The huge price difference makes me wonder if there's a huge quality difference as well. Do you know anything about why the pricing is two orders of magnitude different?

Also, do you have any understanding of why some carbon offset programs, such as CoolEffect, are 501(c)3 organizations, and others, such as Tradewater, aren't?

Also, in response to your comment above about how reducing emissions is often much cheaper than offsetting them, I've found that to be particularly true when it comes to air travel. I first became aware of the oversized impact of air travel in 2010, and because of it I flew less than I might have otherwise, but it wasn't until I met my husband Pete four years ago that I stopped flying altogether. My last flight was in January of 2017. Pete had already quit flying when I met him, and I was leaning in that direction, but getting pushback from most people in my life. The fact that Pete had already stopped flying helped me stop, too. At first, it felt hard to do. But I think that's only due to cultural pressure. In reality, it's one of the easiest changes to make because you save tons of money and time! For our honeymoon in 2019, we did a two-week bike trip from Mountain View to Santa Barbara, with some camping and some staying in B&Bs and motels, and then we took the train home. (You get a tailwind riding south along the California coast, generally speaking.) It was absolutely wonderful and memorable. You see so much more traveling at the speed of a bicycle. In an alternate version of this story, we might have flown to France for a two-week bike trip. We also would have seen a lot and had a great time, but we would have probably spent about $10,000 more and been accountable for about 6 metric tons of CO2e due to the air travel. (The calculators seem to have a lot of variability for air travel emissions.) And regarding time, instead of spending a day to get to France and a day to get home, our enjoyment started as soon as we began pedaling away from home. During our trip we met a couple who had flown from France to California to do a bicycle tour. California is already an excellent travel destination. It only requires a shift in perspective to enjoy what's close at hand instead of feeling the need to fly around the globe.

In comparison to some other emissions reductions that require an initial investment, such as buying an electric car or switching from gas to electric appliances or improving home insulation, reducing or eliminating air travel is an immediate savings with no capital outlay. It works especially well for trips you didn't want to take anyway, such as going to your distant cousin's graduation in Florida. It's even possible to say no to weddings, if you don't really want to go.

Thanks again for your columns,

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Dec 29, 2020 at 1:58 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Rachel, what a terrific comment. I strongly agree with your "It only requires a shift in perspective to enjoy what's close at hand instead of feeling the need to fly around the globe." That is true for almost any place, but especially the area where we live.

Alternatively, instead of thinking of it as "Don't fly" or "Fly less", think of it as "Make flying more special" or "Treat flying as a special indulgence". Do it half as often (or a quarter as often) and really value it and make the most of it when you do fly. Then, when you aren't flying, treat yourself to nice meals or a nice hotel or whatever with a part of the money you saved by not flying.

Great questions on offsets. They deserve more than this small response, but a few things. Offsets come nowhere close to even a fraction of the emissions we are producing, even if you assume they all work (which they don't). There is no reasonable plan imo that has them accounting for anything but a small fraction of the reductions we need. We will need negative emissions, like direct-air capture, but currently they are crazy expensive and also use a ton of energy. It is much, much, much better to (a) use energy more efficiently and (b) use clean energy wherever possible.

There is a good article on direct air capture at CarbonBrief that addresses some of this (e.g., scale, cost, energy consumption).

On offset prices, I would say that price does not correlate with value, though it's also true that no one is sure how to value "time". (Some cheaper offsets may not be very permanent, but can buy time until, say, carbon removal is much cheaper.) That is why I advise not looking at price but instead looking at vendor and project. Related, those who buy Climeworks removals are investing as much in the technology (trying to reduce the price) as they are in the removals themselves. It's otherwise hard to make a case for paying that price imo.

The advice to conserve and reduce, before considering offsets for what you cannot address this year, is absolutely the right advice. It is more effective, it is cheaper, and it will stand the test of time.

Thanks again for the great question.

Posted by Palo Alto Green, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Jan 24, 2021 at 6:23 pm

Palo Alto Green is a registered user.

Two other things you can do to reduce the carbon emissions. First, switch from natural gas to electric for your home (water heater, cook top, heating (mini split heat pump hvac) and electric car). Secondly, install electric solar panels because even though Palo Alto's electric supply is all renewable, almost half is hydro and when you go solar, you're freeing that up for others since there is only a limited fixed supply of hydro. Both of those will reduce your carbon footprint while saving you money. Note, solar prices have come way down in the last 10 years.

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