9 Best Carbon Offset Programs For When You Can’t Reduce Your Own Emissions
Knowing how to invest in carbon credits to buying carbon offsets: a trendy topic many of us don’t really understand?
We’ve all been here: ready to hit “Confirm” as we book our flight or check-out from our favorite Amazon alternative. Then we notice a little blank box offering to offset our footprint.
It seems simple enough, a couple of bucks to make up for our emissions (and eco-guilt).
Why wouldn’t we want to offset our footprint?
Well, the process isn’t as simple or effective as it may seem.
But that’s only if they’re purchased from a vetted organization that’s actually accomplishing what they say they are.
In fact, carbon offsets can be a bad thing if they act like the devil on your shoulder and encourage you to keep emitting (because, you can just make up for it with offsets, right?).
We’ve set off to explore the ins and outs of offsets, including recommendations for the most reputable and best carbon offset providers.
WHAT ARE CARBON OFFSETS?
Put simply, a carbon offset is a way for an individual or corporation to balance out or negate a portion of their carbon footprint.
Carbon offsets are essentially monetary support for projects that either remove (AKA sequester) CO2 from our atmosphere or prevent new emissions.
Commonly, these projects include things like tree planting, renewable energy developments, clean water programs, energy efficiency improvements, carbon capture, and bioremediation.
Most often we associate carbon offsets with flying because the airline industry was one of the first to offer them with just the tick of a box.
However, carbon offsets can be purchased for nearly any and everything—from cruises and daily commutes to internet usage and a hot shower.
It’s now becoming more common to see brands and platforms purchase carbon offsets to cover their own operations’ emissions.
How do carbon offsets work?
When you purchase carbon offsets, you’ll find there are several schemes available, with varying prices and payment options.
All of it is based on the price of carbon and the value of carbon credits, which considers the economic, social, and environmental impacts of a project.
For example, Gold Standard (a well known certification body for carbon offset programs) assigns a monetary value for projects.
This is based on not only climate action, but also biodiversity, balance of payments, employment, livelihood, and health impacts.
Considering this, something like a biogas project is more “valuable” than a wind power project, so a smaller contribution to this program will have the same impact as a larger contribution to a project supporting renewable wind energy.
Without getting into the nitty-gritty, this is based somewhat on market influences (like supply and demand).
Sounds great, any drawbacks?
Speaking of the nitty-gritty, unless you’re an economist or an emissions expert, something like “100 trees planted” may sound like a great way for you to make up for your recent flight.
Unfortunately, this is where carbon offsetting can be susceptible to greenwashing claims.
The carbon offset market has grown tremendously since initial credits were traded after the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.
It’s great that we have more options when it comes to making up for our impact, but what’s not so great are some of the motivations behind the carbon market.
When a company (Disney, for instance) can boast about its carbon offsets (or even carbon insetting), it can appeal to a new and growing segment of consumers who align with companies that value social and environmental aims.
But, as was the case for Disney, their projects may fall short and their efforts to prevent deforestation may appear murky at best, and unsuccessful at worst.
Always check into the standards by which an offset program operates.
These will help you determine that the projects are real, verified independently, permanent, have an impact that is measurable, and ideally, wouldn’t have been possible without the offsets (also known as additionality).
You’ll commonly see Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) or Verified Emission Reduction (VER), which may be offered by certifying bodies like:
- American Carbon Registry
- Climate Action Reserve
- Gold Standard
- Plan Vivo
- Climate, Community and Biodiversity (CCB) Standards
- UNFCCC Standards
- International Carbon Reduction & Offset Alliance
There are also a few other complications for carbon offsets.
As this Guardian article summarized, “All schemes have pluses and minuses.”
Offset funds aren’t supporting what they should.
When clear standards or measurements and reporting aren’t involved, there is a risk.
In fact, this happens to the bulk of the offsets currently in existence.
For instance, some projects in Brazil haven’t been successful because of a lack of funds, conflicts with local governments, or changes in the local environment.
Carbon offsets may have unintentional negative impacts.
What’s that saying about the best intentions?
There’s a term called leakage that is used to describe the unintentional negative impacts of an environmental project.
Take a carbon offset program that prevents deforestation in a protected area in the Amazon.
Without rigorous research or accounting, this may inadvertently lead to deforestation in an unprotected area, meaning limited—if any—success of the carbon offset program.
Carbon offsets: An excuse to continue unsustainable behavior?
Then there’s the fact that offsets allow companies and individuals to pat themselves on the back for “doing good” through carbon offsets.
Airlines have been known to adopt carbon offset programs… just before increasing the number of flights they operate.
As The Guardian’s George Monbiot writes, “Our guilty consciences appeased, we can continue to fill up our SUVs and fly around the world with the least concern about our impact on the planet… You buy yourself a clean conscience by paying someone else to undo the harm you are causing.”
The first thing you’ll see when you visit their website is that the average American will produce 50,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions every.single.year.
CarbonFund makes it easy to decrease this number by supporting carbon reduction projects.
So far, they’ve successfully offset more than 38 billion pounds of CO2 through the support of more than 200 different carbon-sequestering projects.
The projects are third-party validated and include initiatives to support energy efficiency, renewable energy, and reforestation—they’ve planted over one million trees so far.
You can choose between a few different one-off offsets (for cars, air travel, homes, events, or water usage). You can also opt for annual offset options or, if you’ve been saving up, an individual lifetime offset for just over $16,000.
Sure that’s a lot of money, but think of it as an investment in our planet’s future, which is honestly the best investment in the future (both that of the individual and the collective) that we can make.
2. NATIVE ENERGY
Native Energy’s supported projects are a little different.
They pioneer community-scale initiatives around regenerative agriculture, biodiversity, and strengthening farming communities.
For example, all purchased carbon offsets allowed them to provide communities in Ethiopia with filters for clean water. In other words, their impact is usually twofold, encompassing both environmental and social benefits.
For individuals, they have a carbon footprint calculator and several options including one-time offsets and gift packages (yet another fantastic eco-friendly gift idea) and monthly, quarterly, and annual subscriptions.
You can also select which project you’d like to support.
myclimate spans far and wide—more than 41 countries in total!
Their projects, many of which are in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, focus on things like hydropower (and other renewable energy sources), energy efficiency, biomass, biogas, land use and forestry, waste management, and water purification.
The Swiss initiative has become one of the global leaders in voluntary carbon offsets.
They have customers ranging from some of the largest companies in the world to nonprofit organizations and private individuals (this is the one we use when we travel).
Providing assurance for offsetters, their annual reports elaborate on their efforts (which, again, are typically both social and environmental).
You’ll find them protecting forests in Tanzania for the wildlife and indigenous people that live there, providing communities in Laos with ceramic purifiers for clean drinking water, and implementing circular economy practices in Romania to enhance plastic recycling.
All projects are verified by third-party standards such as CDM Gold Standard and Plan Vivo.
As a nonprofit organization, 20% of offset purchases are used to cover internal costs and administration.
terrapass is another frequently-spoken name in the world of carbon offsets.
This for-profit social enterprise is one of the best carbon offset providers in the USA because it caters to individuals, events, small businesses, and medium-to-large corporations.
Most of these projects are based in the United States and through them, they aim to support local, smaller communities that might not normally have the budget or infrastructure to run large-scale environmental projects.
terrapass is committed to transparency, too.
In fact, they were the first carbon offset provider in the United States to share this level of transparency.
All projects must pass the additionality test as well, meaning the projects wouldn’t happen without terrapass funding.
Your offset starts with calculating your carbon footprint.
Then, choose between monthly plans or individual carbon offsets for specific items including holidays, flights, tourism, weddings, or water use.
You can also give a zero waste gift of terrapass offsets to friends and family.
atmosfair is in the business of reducing carbon dioxide emissions while supporting sustainable development and combating poverty.
The German nonprofit supports projects in 15 different countries, ranging from solar energy, hydropower, and wind energy to environmental education and eco-tourism.
90% of these projects adhere to the CDM Gold Standard.
Like terrapass, they test for additionality when finding projects.
For transparency’s sake, they share annual impact reports that specify how the funds are used. 90% goes directly to the carbon sequestering projects.
As one of the best carbon offset programs for flights, they help you calculate and offset the emissions in a quick and simple way.
Opt for an offset subscription or choose any desired amount of carbon dioxide to offset once, monthly, or quarterly.
You’ll even receive a personal certificate upon doing so. Gold (or, green) stars for everyone!
That means every single one satisfied a rigorous 40-point checklist of the world’s highest carbon negating standards.
They provide the most accurate carbon emissions calculators available, prioritize efficient and ethical initiatives, offer affordable pricing, and pride themselves on being a forward-thinking organization committed to listening to the people.
For these reasons and more, they’re well on their way to being a Certified B Corp.
Here’s where they really stand out: you can choose a personal offset for nearly any activity you do.
These include offsetting a commute, car ride, hotel stay, business flights, waste disposal and recycling, internet usage, and even skydiving or a hot air balloon flight.
No matter what you do or did just one time, clear the slate with Clear.
Treepoints wants to make it easy for us to live in a carbon-neutral way by helping us actually understand our carbon footprint as well as offset it.
This social enterprise operates via a subscription program that supports world-class programs that both remove carbon and reduce harmful pollution.
Projects are chosen through a close partnership with their certifiers, Gold Standard and VCS.
For anyone on a budget wanting to do a bit of good, Treepoints utilizes a unique bulk-buy model, which means cheaper prices for members.
They also don’t take a fixed service fee, but instead, provide competitive prices per ton. Any profit comes from between the rate they buy and sell these credits at (which varies from month to month).
This slim profit margin covers running costs while the rest (at least 50%) is reinvested into similar projects fighting climate change.
Unlike most other carbon offset programs, they reward their members.
Anytime you make a donation or refer someone to join Treepoints, you earn points. Once you reach a certain balance, you’ll receive a gift voucher that can be redeemed through a list of brands also supporting climate action.
8. COOL EFFECT
Cool Effect wants to make carbon offsetting simple.
All it takes is a click of a button.
You can choose between a specific project, pick based on the number of emissions you’d like to offset, or simply donate equally to all projects.
Currently, these include methane capture in India, ocean rehabilitation in Myanmar, composting pig poo in Brazil, and protecting the black bear habitat in Alaska, to name a few.
Their projects are based on peer-reviewed scientific methodologies and independent technical advisory committees that ensure the financial (and environmental) durability of the projects.
They guarantee the projects are ethically and financially sound and 100% additional. This means all reductions achieved by their projects are additional to those that would have happened if the project had not been carried out. In their words, “because these projects exist, the amount of carbon emissions entering the atmosphere is less than it would have been without them.”
All of the projects have been further certified by several major international carbon credit standards, like Verra, the Climate Action Reserve, and the Gold Standard.
For this service, Cool Effect retains a 9.87% fee, meaning more than 90% of your dollar goes directly to the projects themselves.
They also share the cost per ton of each program.
9. SUSTAINABLE TRAVEL INTERNATIONAL
Looking for one of the best carbon offset providers for flights?
The name should say it all, but this final program lets you calculate your flight footprint (and offset it) in a matter of minutes.
Beyond booking your vacay with one of the many eco-tourism companies, Sustainable Travel International is all about protecting and conserving vulnerable destinations by neutralizing tourism’s impact on people and our planet.
They reduce tourism’s carbon footprint in a few different ways: conserving fragile ecosystems of common tourist destinations, empowering local communities, and reducing the amount of waste and pollution associated with tourism.
All of the projects have been certified by independent third-party organizations, including standards from the Gold Standard, Plan Vivo, and Climate Action Reserve.
They also correct problems commonly found in the carbon offset space, including additionality, permanence, and leakage.
They share their financials, which currently shows that 60% of the actual revenue flows through to programs.
WHY SHOULD YOU BUY CARBON OFFSETS?
What’s in it for you?
Well, there is no tangible benefit for you…right now.
And besides giving Earth a leg up and increasing our chances of it being habitable in a century, there are lots of reasons why you should buy carbon offsets.
Carbon offsets are part and parcel of what will be required to achieve necessary emissions reductions.
When done right, they have the benefit of supporting communities around the world.
Not only that, but they’re encouraging large corporations to make emissions cuts in addition to buying offsets, leading to greater corporate responsibility.
They’re also setting the stage for ingenuity, like using citrus and garlic cattle feed to curb a cow’s methane production.
But what does this mean for you and your annual Christmas flight to family abroad?
Here’s the thing: we’re not all in a position to stop driving, install solar panels (if you’re concerned with this renewable see our deep dive on how sustainable are solar panels), never set foot in an airport again, and completely change our diets.
Considering that, buying offsets is better than doing nothing.
However, when you spend an affordable $4.75 on carbon offsets for your December flight, it’s important to recognize that it doesn’t give you a green light for a June trip, too.
Eco-guilt is one thing, but a get-out-of-climate-jail-free card is another.
Using carbon offsets to shed said guilt and continue (or nay increase) your emissions means our planet likely won’t be giving you a gold star for your “contribution.”
FINAL THOUGHTS ON THE BEST CARBON OFFSET PROGRAMS
Much like using socially responsible credit cards, carbon offsets are a good second-place option for reducing some of our impact on the planet.
Taking steps to reduce your own impact. That is the second R of zero waste, after all.
The voluntary carbon offset program is booming and it’s likely you’ll offset something at some point in your life (a flight, a wedding, a baby even).
When you couple this with a personal reduction in emissions, consider yourself an eco-warrior (in the cool sense of the phrase, of course).
And if you’re reading this article, it’s likely you’re already doing something to make our planet a little happier and healthier, like practicing a simple zero waste tip.
In the words of CarbonFund, “Reduce what you can, offset what you can’t.” And then enjoy the feeling of doing what’s right for our planet and future generations.