Busted: Four myths about carbon offsetting

Carbon offsets are a simple and smart way to support our climate, but not everyone knows how they work. To help you filter fact from fiction, we’re diving into the details and clearing up four common myths about carbon offsetting.

From Google to the Rolling Stones to your downstairs neighbor — it seems like everyone is talking about carbon offsets these days. And for good reason: While we need to restructure our societies and lifestyles to stop carbon emissions from destroying the planet, offsetting what we can’t yet reduce is the best way to mitigate our impact till we get there.

But just like so many things that quickly go mainstream, it can be hard to separate fact from fiction. To help clear away the confusion, we tackled four oft-recycled myths about carbon offsets. Buckle up — this might get a bit geeky — but we promise you’ll learn something new.

First things first: What are carbon offsets?

If you don’t know exactly what a carbon offset is, you’re not alone. A recent study showed that among Americans who understand the concept of climate change, one-third aren’t familiar with offsets, while half have heard of offsetting but don't know exactly what it is. Let’s get you up to speed in under 30 seconds:

The average American produces about 16 tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually by driving, flying, and living in the modern world. Those emissions are your carbon footprint. They increase the global greenhouse effect by trapping heat in the atmosphere. That means more natural disasters like draughts, floods, and wildfires, endangering the wellbeing of billions.

To stop that trend we need to dramatically lower our CO2e output. There are ways to reduce our individual footprints, like flying less, eating more plants, or avoiding fast fashion. But completely changing our CO2e-emitting infrastructure, supply chains, and way of life will take decades.

That’s where carbon offsets come in: They allow you to invest in environmental projects around the world that capture or reduce the same emissions elsewhere. If you offset the same amount you emit, your footprint is neutralized.

Got it? Good — now, onto the myths!

Myth #1: Carbon offsets are a cure-all for climate change

Let’s get this out of the way first: Carbon offsetting is not the solution to climate change. Why? Because there is never going to be one single solution for a problem of this magnitude. We need them all!

We need to change the way we eat, commute, and consume. We need to reduce and reuse, decarbonize and divest, innovate, and invent. We need to inform, hold accountable, speak up, vote, and get involved. We need to act individually and collectively.

Starting by offsetting your own carbon footprint is a fantastic way to take action that has immediate and measurable effects on the planet. Next up, challenge the status quo and push for larger change.

Myth #2: Carbon offsets aren’t trustworthy

This is an important one, so let’s take a step back. The concept of carbon offsets has been around for a while, but it really got a boost in 2005 when the Kyoto Protocol took effect. Back then, this was still a relatively novel concept, with its fair share of teething problems, and some cowboys took advantage of poor oversight.

Today, it’s matured into a set of robust global frameworks developed by experts over the last 15 years. At its core are internationally recognized certification bodies, that make sure every ton of CO2e they certify is rigorously measured, monitored and verified.

Take the Verified Carbon Standard, and the Gold Standard. They’re widely considered the two highest standards for quality carbon offsetting in the world, and certify all of Klima’s projects. They guarantee that every ton of CO2e offset is:

  • Additional: Wouldn’t have happened without your support

  • Contained: Won’t cause emissions to go up elsewhere

  • Permanent: Is protected against destruction by human or natural causes

  • Sustainable: Has a positive impact on local communities and environment

  • Verified: Is inspected and verified by an independent third party

  • Unique: Has a unique ID on a public ledger and can only be counted once

So, while you’ll always be able to find someone who sells you uncertified or questionable offsets online, going with these standards will make sure your offsets are trustworthy and effective.

Myth #3: Tree planting takes decades to offset my emissions

Tree planting is a popular method for carbon offsetting. And for good reason: Trees are one of the most tangible and easily understood climate solutions. They provide tons of biodiversity co-benefits and have massive potential for large-scale implementation.

A common misconception around tree-based offsets is that future emission reductions are already claimed today. That’s because it takes decades for a tree to grow and reach its full carbon sequestration potential. This concept has a name. It’s called “ex ante” offsetting or “forward selling”. And while it does exist, it is not a super common form of offsetting.

Klima's tree-based offsetting projects are instead certified “ex post”. It means that the offset is only issued after a tree has already stored the amount of carbon dioxide in its biomass. This amount is regularly measured, documented, and then certified. That way, you can be sure you’re carbon neutral today — not at a distant point in the future.

Myth #4: Carbon offsets are a license to pollute.

Do people use carbon offsets as an excuse to pollute even more? That would be super lame! So is it true? Researchers from Germany looked into this and found out that it’s quite the opposite: People who offset their emissions also take more climate-positive actions in other areas of their lives.

“Offsets are an effective contribution to climate protection,” explains Prof. Andreas Ziegler. "The frequently expressed reservation that it is a matter of selling indulgences to justify additional CO2e emissions does not apply."

It’s also common sense: if you’re personally invested in a cause, you want to act to make it succeed. Offsetting and reducing go hand-in-hand.

Climate change can be complex and it’s important to get the facts straight. Next time you hear one of these myths, you can help clear things up so more people understand the solutions we have at hand — and how effective offsets are in our fight for the future.

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