It’s Earth Day week, which means people, organizations, and corporations around the world are talking about environmentalism. Activists are planting trees, children are learning about climate change at school, and big-box retailers are organizing displays of Earth-friendly products for sympathetic shoppers to purchase. Since the first official event 51 years ago, Earth Day has been both an opportunity for real change and a chance for companies known for environmental disasters to save some face. That’s not a negative—any action taken against climate change is a positive.
Once upon a time, humanity went about their business, farming, hunting, riding horses, and doing little to hasten the rise of global temperatures. Since the Industrial Revolution, however, annual CO2 emissions have skyrocketed; in 1750, around the start of that historical time period, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere was about 280 ppm (parts per million); by 2020, that number was over 400 ppm. There are myriad reasons for this dramatic rise—the proliferation of gas-guzzling automobiles is a significant one. A common Earth Day initiative is to encourage commuters to carpool, to ditch their keys for a bus ticket, or to ride a bike.
The United States, in 2017, was responsible for some 6.5 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, 82% of which came in the form of CO2. The biggest source was transportation, making up 29% of the whole. Electric power followed with 28%; industry represented 22%; agriculture, commercial, and residential made up the final chunks, each with less than 10%. All this is of course connected, as the normal people who make up the residential chunk also contribute to every other chunk through their various purchases and habits.
Individuals and organizations alike have, in recent years, increasingly turned to carbon offsetting practices to chip away at their contributions to these massive emissions numbers. If you’re not familiar with the term, carbon offsetting involves investing in projects that aim to either remove carbon from the atmosphere or prevent future emissions. Basically, even if you go through 100 gallons of gasoline driving your car each week, if you continuously fund a solar panel installation in your neighborhood, the local coal-fired power plant doesn’t have to produce as much electricity, and your net CO2 emissions go down.
Carbon offsetting can take many forms. Forestry projects might involve protecting trees (which remove CO2 from the atmosphere) from logging or planting new trees. Renewable energy projects are self-explanatory: the more renewable energy resources in use, the sooner the world’s power grids can leave emission-heavy resources in the past. These are the two most visible projects. Others can include more efficient waste disposal, switching out gas power for electric in public transportation, distributing more efficient cooking stoves...the list goes on.
A web search for “purchase carbon offsets” yields over 1 million results. One service, near the top of the page, offers separate services for individuals, small businesses, and medium & large businesses. For individuals, they offer a monthly offset subscription starting at $4.86 per month. Plug in some numbers—a household size of two people, ownership of one car, and an annual flight tally of five regional or one international—and you’re offered a plan to offset 40,000 pounds of emissions each year, all for $14.97 per month.
This subscription-based service has four project types in its portfolio: landfill gas capture, farm power, clean energy from wind farms, and abandoned coal mine methane. Another service, with a website dressed in the sort of graphic design common to millennial-targeting direct-to-consumer brands, offers e-commerce carbon offset integration and easily plugs in to a few of the more common platforms in that field, including Shopify. Regardless of what kind of company or everyday person you are, it’s now very easy to find an offset service that fits your needs.
The major question concerning carbon offsetting: how effective is it, really? It’s clear that simply...reducing your carbon footprint by riding a bicycle instead of driving, or adopting a diet of local vegetables as opposed to eating beef farmed hundreds of miles away, is far more effective than purchasing carbon offsets while continuing to live a high-polluting life. As an individual consumer, there are clear, if limited, actions you can take to reduce your carbon footprint. A combination of an effective offset program and an optimized lifestyle is ideal. When discussing large companies with gargantuan carbon footprints, it’s a little different.
If an oil drilling company was to announce the purchase of forestry-based carbon offset credits and call their oil “carbon neutral,” you’d be right to scoff. This does indeed happen. That’s pure marketing—a more effective route would be to transition from drilling to wind farming, on top of purchasing offset credits. There has to be a total commitment to carbon neutrality, not just gesturing for the sake of public image.
While popular (who doesn’t love trees?), it’s now known that forestry-based offset programs are less effective than, say, installing machines that capture cow-fart methane at massive beef or dairy farms. This kind of offset is crucially more quantifiable, as well. It’s not possible to quantify with complete accuracy the future carbon-sink capabilities of a single planted tree that will take years to mature. Quantifiability equals accountability.
Now that carbon offsetting has become an established practice, third-party groups exist to verify the effectiveness of various offset services. If you’re interested in supplementing your own efforts to reduce your carbon footprint with some offset credits, do some research before you spend your money.
So many carbon offset programs are marketed to consumers in one country but fund projects halfway across the world. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but acting locally is always key in activist work. If you’re thinking about setting up an offset program in your community—perhaps by working with interested local businesses to fund a solar farm on your local power grid—now is a great time to get started. With ShareYourself, you can easily set up and manage your project. Keep yourself accountable and quantify your results with the platform’s intuitive project tools. You can make a difference, all you have to do is take the first step.