Carbon Offsets — What Are They and Why Are They Useful?

API recently announced a new carbon offset program intended to provide students greener, more environmentally sound travel alternatives. To shed further light on the contributions carbon offsets make as a zero carbon travel option we’ve invited a guest blogger from our offset partner, Carbon Clear.

By Jayme Walenta, Ph.D.

We often begin conversations about carbon offsets by clarifying what exactly they are. Put simply, an offset credit represents one metric ton of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gas that has been reduced or absorbed somewhere else. Offsets are produced from a variety of carbon reduction projects located across the world, including renewable energy projects, methane capture projects, and energy efficiency projects.

What one ton of C02 looks like

Why Offset?

The reality of international travel is that it results in a net addition of the harmful greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere. For the 2008-2009 school year alone, approximately 262,000 students studied abroad (Vista Wide). When considering a relatively short journey from New York to London, we estimate that all that jet travel amounts to about 233,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide. This is in just one year alone!

In the carbon market, airline travel is one emission source we refer to as unavoidable. In the case of study abroad, it is often necessary to fly so that you may immerse yourself in and experience or learn from a new culture. Currently, technologies are not in place for low carbon travel by plane, though they are on their way. Given this, carbon offsets play a important role in mitigating climate change right now, rather than waiting for those technologies to become widely available. Offsets help address climate change because our rapidly moving atmosphere ensures that reductions occur in one corner of the globe have an immediate impact in the entire atmosphere.

Offset Buyer Beware

Offset purchasers should be aware that there are criteria which credits should adhere in order to truly qualify as an offset (by Kyoto Protocol Standards). For example, one should ask, if the offsets are:

1. Real. The reduction should be real representing actual, quantifiableemission reductions.

2. Additional. The principle that a project producing offset credits should only occur with the expectation of carbon finance such that the project would not happen without the funding provided by the sale of the carbon credits. Carbon offset credits should not be the result of a “business as usual” scenario. Additionality is the most crucial element of carbon credits.

3. Verified. Credits should come from projects that are third party verified and whose performances are consistently monitored.

4. Permanent. The GHG reductions claimed to be taking place should be permanent and not reversible. For those credits that come from projects that may be reversible, such as forestry projects, the credits should be backed by guarantees.

5. Enforceable. The carbon offset credit should be backed by legal instruments like a contract that define their creation and ownership.

Offset Credit Standards:

Carbon Clear’s own internal standards as well as our membership in the International Carbon Offset & Reduction Alliance (ICROA) ensure that all of our offset credits meet the above criteria. An easy way to judge if an offset is permanent, additional and verified is to scrutinize the standard to which your credit adheres. Some standards are stronger, particularly on the addtionality front, than others. We recommend the Voluntary Carbon Standard, the Clean Development Mechanism or CDM, and the CDM Gold Standard. Question your retail provider to find out the standard associated with your credit, and what kind of additionality tool was used to assess your credit (i.e. CDM).


Offset standards can reveal the quality of the project

The credits for the API/CC partnership are all certified to the VCS standard. And, each have passed the robust CDM additionality tool measuring that they project would not have occurred without carbon financing.

For more information on the projects in API’s carbon offset portfolio, visit the API website and stay tuned for a future blog post which will cover these exciting projects in greater detail.

Dr. Jayme Walenta is the Managing Director for Carbon Clear’s North American office.

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  1. Jeramy Johnson says

    Thanks for this post Dr. Walenta! I don’t think many of us have contemplated exactly what an offset consists of, and we’ve probably all taken the validity/source of these offsets for granted. I’m happy that API is featuring legitimate offsets of the highest standards!

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