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Carbon Offsets

This research project was completed by students from UBC’s ENVR 400 course in 2019.

What are carbon offsets?

Voluntary Carbon Offsets are a service that individuals, households and businesses can use to compensate for greenhouse gas emissions they could not reduce. Purchasing a carbon offset pays an offset project in another location to remove one ton of CO2 from the atmosphere, or to prevent it from being emitted in the first place. Offset projects include reforestation or conservation projects, renewable energy projects, and energy efficiency projects. 

Examples of Projects Sponsored by Voluntary Offset Funds

  • A biomass boiler in a commercial greenhouse in Delta, B.C. The biomass boiler provides energy to replace the natural gas heating system that the greenhouse operator would have otherwise relied on.
  • A ground-source heat pump installation in Salmon Arm, B.C, heating a retirement home, and providing warm water for elderly residents.
  • A wind farm near Izmir, Turkey. The farm helps to diversify Izmir’s energy mix, reducing their overall dependency on fossil fuels.
Click the image to see the full infographic.

When to buy an offset?

Offsets are not a ‘silver bullet’ solution to the climate crisis and are most impactful after individuals have already taken significant steps to shrink their personal carbon footprint.

These are the four steps you should take before purchasing offsets.

To find opportunities to reduce emissions and purchase offsets, use an emissions calculator to take stock of your largest carbon emission sources. Frequent sources include transport, home utilities, electricity, travel and secondary purchases (food, clothing, etc.) 

 

It is important to choose a calculator that accounts for the regional conditions of where you live (e.g. the fuel mix used to produce electricity in your area). Some calculators are very detailed and ask for utility data, while others use national estimates, reducing their accuracy. Below are links to four credible emissions calculators.

 

  • Government of Saanich: Allows you to calculate vehicle travel data, air trips, hydro bills, gas and heating oil usage, food habits, and consumption and waste habits. But it assumes you’re living in Saanich, meaning the Buildings/Home section of the calculator may not work for communities outside the area.
  • Offsetters: Easy to navigate and understand, but only calculates travel and transport. Does not have other big carbon sources like heat and utilities. 
  • Carbon Footprint: This holistic calculator covers utilities, transport, secondary emissions and travel. However, most of the cost is in USD, EUR, GBP.
  • Carbon Zero: Able to use units of sqm instead of energy used for utilities and explains calculation methodology. However this calculator is not as comprehensive as the Saanich calculator.

Once you have calculated your emissions, reduce them where possible. There are many ways individuals and corporations can lower their emissions, ranging from making improved choices about consumer products such as food and clothing to lifestyle changes such as travel, transportation, home size, and energy consumption.

Everyday sources of emissions in Vancouver:

  • Utilities and home heating: The largest sources of emissions in Canada. Energy audits are one way to understand the current energy efficiency of your home and identify opportunities to save money, energy, and the climate. This toolkit will guide you through a DIY energy audit of your home. For professional measurement of energy use in your home, visit Efficiency B.C  to find a certified energy advisor in your area.
  • Commuting: Driving to work or driving the kids to school adds up. In a busy city like Vancouver, the impact of a vehicle is even greater with traffic. Biking or cycling are excellent alternatives. A 7km public transit journey generates about 60-80 g CO2 per km per person on Translink buses. The carbon footprint of cycling only depends on the additional food consumed to support your ride. 
  • Travel: Limit air travel wherever possible. A single round trip flight from Vancouver to Toronto generates 1.23 tonnes of CO2e.
  • Personal consumption and waste: See how you can reduce your carbon footprint through the food and clothing you buy. 

After emissions reductions have taken place, the purchase of a carbon offset is more legitimate. Purchase an offset to compensate for the emissions that are leftover.

Each type of offset project comes with its benefits and downsides. As the voluntary offset market is largely unregulated, it is important to be able to judge the qualities of a ‘good’ offset. 

Below are the main criteria to assess an offset project.

  • Additional: An offset project is ‘additional’ if it can show that the emissions the project curbed wouldn’t have taken place without the project.
  • Permanent: It is important to ensure that the offset project and its effects are forever there to stay and not subjected to risks of loss. An offset project which sequesters carbon in trees may not be permanent, as a wildfire could re-release the stored carbon into the atmosphere, cancelling the climate benefit of the offset.
  • Certified and Third-Party Verified: There are several offset certifications such as the Clean Development Mechanism and the Gold Standard. It is crucial to choose an offset certification that uses third-party auditors to be confident that the emissions reductions are legitimate. Learn more about certification standards on pages 35-6 of this document.
  • Uniquely owned, tracked and registered: Title to offset credits should be clearly owned by one group to avoid ‘double-counting’ of emissions reductions. When an offset is sold, the vendor of the offset gives up their right to sell that offset credit again. Look for offsets providers which ‘serialize’ their credits and track them in a publicly accessible registry system. Registry systems are an important way to ensure that offsets are “retired” when sold, meaning that they are taken out of circulation. View publicly-accessible registries here.
  • Social Co-benefits: It is best to choose a project that is developed in consultation with the community and will be able to foster sustainable development that is locally beneficial.  
  • Environmental co-benefits: As with social co-benefits, a project should consider the environmental development of the area and how else it can benefit the environment besides carbon reduction.

Offsets represent a reduction of one ton of carbon dioxide. Does that mean all offsets of equal value?  Not necessarily. This article by Ecosystemmarketplace offers an overview of the variations between offset projects.

While carbon offsets offer a useful mechanism for helping to mitigate your carbon footprint, they are not a complete solution to the problem of global greenhouse gas emissions. Taking additional steps to track and reduce your personal emissions through additional lifestyle changes is also vitally important. There are a huge number of ways in which you can lower your GHG emissions, and regularly evaluating your lifestyle will help you to identify changes you can make that will help to reduce your carbon footprint even further. 

More Resources

  • Offset Purchase Guide”- David Suzuki and Pembina Institute. The David Suzuki Foundation and the Pembina Institute have prepared this guide to help Canadian consumers, businesses and organizations assess the quality of carbon offsets and the vendors that sell them. Note that the guide was published in 2011, and the voluntary market is highly changeable.
  • A Comparison of Carbon Offset Standards”- World Wildlife Foundation (WWF). The WWF prepared an overview of offset certifiers and standards. The guide explains how each standard treats concepts like ‘additionality’ and ‘stakeholder consultation’.

  • Commuting: The City of Vancouver has gathered a list of tips for reducing the carbon footprint of your commute.
  • General lifestyle: The New York Times offers a visually appealing guide on lowering your carbon footprint by making small, day-to-day lifestyle choices.
  • General lifestyle: The Guardian offers a general survey of large emission sources and opportunities for reduction. This article is a good jump-off point for more targeted strategies. Note that the advice in this article is intended for a global audience and does not account for the unique Vancouver context. 

  • The Gold Standard is recognized as the highest standard by the Pembina Institute, WWF, and the David Suzuki Foundation. View their online marketplace here.
  • Climate Neutral Now is the offset marketplace for the United Nations Clean Development Mechanism. Access the online marketplace here.