What are carbon offsets - and how to buy them

Sanchali Pal
April 7, 2021

The first time I tried to buy carbon offsets was when I attempted to offset our wedding guests’ travel in the spring of 2018. I spent over four months and several gray hairs calling up project developers, fact-checking verifiers, and getting increasingly frustrated with the lack of transparency. 

Through that process, I realized just how many bad offsets are out there – and how difficult it is for a consumer like me to discern the good from the bad. 

Like me, many people are considering buying carbon offset credits to compensate for their own emissions. When paired with a personal reduction practice, carbon offsetting can be a powerful climate action. But, truly, all carbon offsets are not created equally. 

This guide breaks down how to buy carbon offsets: what they are, how they work, and what to watch out for. 

Joro puts climate action on auto-pilot. Download Joro to build your carbon intuition, reduce your personal emissions, and compensate for what you can’t change yet through high-quality carbon offsets. 

What is a carbon offset? 

By definition, a carbon offset represents one metric ton of greenhouse gas reduced or removed from the atmosphere. Companies, governments, and individuals can buy carbon offsets to compensate for the emissions they create. 

When you purchase a carbon offset credit, you invest in a project (or portfolio of projects) that reduces or removes greenhouse gas emissions. A few examples of carbon offset projects include:

  • Reforestation: Planting trees or protecting forests to absorb greenhouse gases 
  • Renewable Energy: Replacing dirty energy on the grid with clean alternatives
  • Soil Regeneration: Sequestering carbon through regenerative farming practices
  • Direct Air Capture: Using machinery to suck carbon dioxide out of the air 

Can anyone buy carbon offsets?

Anyone - from governments to businesses to regular people - can buy carbon offsets. Unfortunately, there’s no federally regulated carbon offset market in the United States. It’s up to consumers to do their own research or purchase rigorously-vetted carbon offset credits through companies like Joro

How much carbon offset should I buy? 

There’s no set framework regarding how to buy carbon offsets. This includes how much offset you should buy. You can offset specific items, like flights or online purchases, or your total personal emissions. 

Carbon offset calculators can be complicated and time-consuming. Joro eliminates guesswork by converting your spending into a carbon footprint. As a Net Zero member, you can offset your true monthly emissions automatically.

Learn More: How Does the Joro Carbonizer Work?

How to buy carbon offsets 

Many airlines and e-commerce websites give customers the option to offset their purchase or shipping emissions at checkout. You can also purchase offsets directly through project developers. As a consumer, however, the most effective way to buy high-quality carbon offsets is through a reputable third-party provider. 

What should I look for in a carbon offset?

Not all carbon offset projects are created equal. At their worst, carbon offsets do not provide the carbon reduction or removal they purport to. Instead, they’re seen as a “license to pollute” by consumers, who proceed to cause even more emissions than they did before. 

For instance, if a forestry project isn’t as “permanent” as it says it is, a forest that should sequester greenhouse gases could lose trees due to neglect, disease, or logging. Reports find that offset programs in general dramatically overestimate their impact. 

Before you buy carbon offsets, it’s important to understand what to look for – and what to avoid. This helps ensure your offset dollars ultimately fund a worthwhile cause. 

1. Integrity

First, you want to make sure that any carbon offset project you’re considering supporting crosses the basic hurdle of actually avoiding, reducing, or removing the carbon emissions it claims to. To ensure the integrity of a carbon offset project, look for: 

  • Verifiability: The carbon reduction or removal must be measured or rigorously evaluated by a trustworthy, independent third party.
  • Enforceability: The offset vendor must provide evidence that the carbon credits issued from a project are sold once and retired. Credits must be backed by a contract that defines exclusive ownership.
  • Additionality: A project must demonstrate strong evidence that it’s not taking credit for carbon reduction or removal that would have happened already, without the project.
  • Permanence: A high-quality project’s carbon reduction or removal is hard to reverse. At the very least, projects should demonstrate evidence that they will protect carbon reductions for the duration of the project; as much as possible, look for projects with longer durations. 
  • Transparency: Look for transparency in fee structure, documentation, and operational efficiency. 

2. Transformative Potential

Second, consider if the project is contributing to the kind of world you want to live in, and the ecosystem of solutions we need to create a future for all life to thrive. The best projects prioritize:  

  • Efficiency: Use your dollars to help create an efficient and direct market for offsets. Joro favors options that provide a higher percentage of the overall cost to project owners.
  • Scalability: Look for projects that can meaningfully contribute to reducing global emissions in the next 30 years. Checking if the solution you are supporting is on the list of Project Drawdown Solutions is a good place to start.
  • Catalytic Potential: Where possible, look for projects that would be hard-strapped to find funding without your dollars, and where you can advance innovation, demonstrate replicability, or inspire similar future projects.
  • Ecosystem Benefits: Many carbon offset projects create benefits to natural ecosystems beyond carbon reduction, including conservation, biodiversity, and climate adaptation benefits.
  • Community Benefits: The climate crisis presents enormous equity and justice challenges. Jor prioritizes projects that will benefit the poor and vulnerable populations who are affected most by changing climates.‍

Download the Joro app to access a carefully-curated carbon offset portfolio that meets all of these criteria - evaluated, monitored, and managed for you. ‍

Do carbon offsets work? 

In theory, carbon offsets work. In practice, poor quality, moral hazard, and equity issues are real risks. Overall, we believe offsetting through high-quality projects is better than not offsetting at all – especially when paired with personal reduction practices.

By paying for high-quality offsets, people can play an important role in financing projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. On the other hand, supporting bad offset projects can be worse than not offsetting at all. 

The risks of carbon offsetting

It’s not hard to figure out how to buy carbon offsets; it’s hard to figure out how to offset effectively. Unfortunately, ineffective offset projects divert capital from truly useful emissions reduction initiatives. They also erode trust and make people feel that the climate crisis is insurmountable. 

Relying solely on offsets can also be distorting. Offsets can make people feel they can continue to emit, simply because they’re paying for their guilt to go away. This is a classic example of moral hazard: when someone has an incentive to take risks that make a system worse off overall because they do not bear the full costs of that risk. 

Bad offsets can also exacerbate equity and justice issues. If rich people can continue to pay to pollute, poor people will continue to bear the worst consequences of the climate crisis. A more sustainable future is one in which we all adapt our lifestyles in moderate ways to achieve a just and thriving future for everyone. 

A framework for effective offsetting

We believe offsetting can be effective when it supports high-quality offsets and when we pair it with reduction. The best way to move to a low-carbon future is to build a society that simply uses fewer fossil fuels. 

Just as companies create reduction plans and offset to compensate for what they can’t at first reduce, people can be most effective by taking a reduce and offset approach. A good place to start is to align with the Oxford Principles for Offsetting

  1. Understand your current emissions
  2. Take steps to cut your own emissions and minimize the need for offsets
  3. Support high-impact projects that reduce and remove carbon
  4. Repeat

Joro makes it easy to align with these principles. We analyze your purchasing data to calculate your carbon footprint automatically. This reveals your top lifestyle drivers and where you can act to reduce your personal emissions. You can purchase one-time offsets through the app, or go Net Zero to neutralize your monthly impact. 

Get Started: Download Joro to track, reduce, and offset your personal emissions

How to buy carbon offsets for flights

Many airlines give customers the option to offset their tickets at checkout. Some even offer relatively accurate calculators so you can offset your exact flight instead of a generic fee. This is convenient, but airline offsets often lack transparency. With Joro, you can mitigate your true flight footprint with rigorously-vetted carbon offsets. 

Should I buy carbon offsets for flights?

One of the first reasons people think about buying a carbon offset is for a flight. It makes sense - air travel is one of the most carbon-intensive activities we engage in. A single, round-trip flight from New York to San Francisco emits more carbon per person than a whole month of eating, drinking, shopping, commuting, and paying utilities. 

Whenever possible, opting for ground transport can create huge carbon savings. But sometimes, you just have to get on a plane. When you do, explore our guide on how to fly sustainably to minimize the impact of your flight. 

Once you’ve made sure your impact is manageable, you can buy carbon offsets to compensate for your flight emissions. While purchasing directly from an airline is convenient, it comes with certain risks. 

Because the carbon offset market isn’t regulated, most airlines buy into low-cost, short-lived carbon offset projects with little accountability. This creates a low likelihood you are actually buying the carbon reduction you would like to achieve. 

Joro makes it easy to offset your flight footprint

As a Joro user, you can offset flights directly through the app. Instead of spending, say, $5 to offset that NY to SFO trip through your airline - with no guarantee that your money is going to make a difference - consider spending closer to $10 to buy into vetted projects, backed by evidence and analysis. 

Offsetting with Joro ensures your dollars actually make a difference. We only take a $1 transaction fee on flight offsets to cover our costs, so you can have confidence your money actually goes to the projects you want to support. 

Offset a flight with Joro

A Footnote on Language

The term “carbon offset” describes emissions avoided, reduced, or removed that someone pays for to compensate for emissions they’re responsible for. The nice thing about the world “offset” is that it’s an understandable shorthand. 

The problem with “offset” language is that it implies an equivalency between carbon we pay to avoid, reduce, or remove - and carbon that we simply cease to emit in our own lives. That’s what we hope and attempt to ensure happens, but in reality, offsets are imperfect. 

No matter how much research and vetting we’ve done, it is near-impossible to guarantee perfect 1-to-1 equivalency. “Carbon credit” is potentially a more accurate term, because it doesn’t imply this equivalency.

Sources: 1. Overseas Development Institute Clean Development Mechanism, 2009. 2. National Resources Defense Council, 2016. 3. 3 Degrees Carbon Offset Claims Guidance, 2019. 4. Oxford Principles for Net Zero Aligned Offsetting, 2020. 

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