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To offset or not to offset

Posted: 12:46PM January 20th, 2012 | Comments

Remember that one super awesome event last November? The one at Edgewood that nearly 200 people attended? The one where local Bioneers- Kim Neuschel, Jessica St. Claire, Parker Palmer, Will Green, Stephanie Ricketts, and Greg David - each spoke about his or her  valuable work in our communities and we all walked away humbled and hopeful? The one where we showed you five different plenaries from the national Bioneers conference? Yes, yes, you got it- the Badger Bioneers Conference!

You might assume that once the conference is over we here at Sustain Dane leave it in the past and move on to concerning ourselves with our numerous upcoming events. Well, you’d be wrong. I’m here to tell you that November’s Badger Bioneers Conference is still very much on our collective mind (yes, we do have one), and here’s why: we asked the Madison Environmental Group to complete a Greenhouse Gas Emissions Assessment of the conference to understand its carbon footprint. Result: the impact of the conference (including participant travel, food consumption, and facility energy use) was equivalent to the emissions from 1.1 cars for 1 year, i.e. 6.91 metric tonnes of CO2. Wowser. There you have it folks, proof that even a ‘sustainability’ conference can have a negative environmental impact (actually, I'd argue that the impact was overall positive due to all the information and inspiriation presented, but let's go with this for a bit). Given the carbon footprint of the conference, the question we have to ask is, how does one mitigate the effect of carbon that is already in the atmosphere? Answer: One purchases carbon offsets. (Well, that’s not the only answer, but that’s the one I want to address here.)

Pause button:  I’d like to take a moment here to briefly explain what I mean by carbon offsetting  and make sure we’re on the same page. In this case, what I’m referring to is the practice of giving a specific amount of money- correlated to a specific amount of CO2-  to a carbon offset organization that then uses those dollars to fund projects that reduce atmospheric carbon, like planting trees, or installing wind turbines or biogas facilities (also referred to as ‘carbon credits’). The idea, of course, is that you are offsetting your/your organization’s use of carbon by putting money towards something else that, in effect, cancels out that carbon emitted by your actions. You tell the organization how many tonnes of CO2 you'd like to offset, they tell you how much to pay (it's not astronomical, don't worry).

Play button: Where was I? Oh, yes. Here we go: The issue of carbon offsetting is not as controversy-free  as one might hope for. Is it taking responsibility for your carbon footprint, or simply a way to justify pollution? Regardless, what it is is a pretty darn hot topic right now and, as you know, scams frequently follow trends. (Actually, I made that scam part up, but I think it’s true.) Anyways, what does seem to be true is that not all carbon offset companies are created equal and it’s important to do your homework. Lucky for us, Madison Environmental Group has done their homework and was prepared to give us some trustworthy recommendations. Nevertheless, we like to be well informed around here so I’ve been doing a bit of exploring to see what folks are talking about.

I started with an article on greenmuze.com on the pros and cons of offsetting, which then led me to David Suzuki, the well-known Canadian scientist and environmentalist. There are several articles evaluating carbon offsetting posted on the David Suzuki Foundation (DSF) site and all were helpful in rounding out my understanding. According to the DSF, a good carbon offset meets three criteria:
1)    The offsets are “additional.” This idea is best explained with an example. If a company is required to install technology that cuts back their carbon emissions, those resulting emission reductions cannot be sold as offsets. Thus, the offset needs to result in a reduction of emissions that would not have occurred otherwise.
2)    The offsets result in permanent reductions. This is why some don’t recommend offsetting by planting trees. While the trees do reduce atmospheric carbon (remember transpiration from biology class?), they are also susceptible to pests, fire, and logging, i.e. they are not permanent. Now, of course we can argue what permanent really means, but given that there are options other than planting trees, you might do best to consider those first.
3)    The offset has been verified by qualified auditors. The highest certification at this time is official recognition by Gold Standard, a Swiss-based non-profit that certifies carbon offsetting projects based on use of renewable energy or energy efficiency technologies and the promotion of sustainable development.

Still, even if an offset earns the goldest of the Gold Stardard, offsetting alone won’t save the world (though, in case you're wondering, when I finally get my act together and decide to purchase some carbon offsets, I'm going with these guys). As Mr. Suzuki says, “Carbon offsets are not a silver bullet, but global warming is such a big problem that it requires a whole range of solutions. Carbon offsets are just one of them.”

Do you purchase carbon offsets? Does your business? Have you considered it, but decided against it? Share your thoughts and experiences! (Was that a Jean Feraca moment? I think so.)

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