What are the best carbon offsets?

This is a common question, and is best framed as what are the most ‘high-quality’ carbon offsets.  There is no single ‘best’ but rather a tier of offsets that must meet strict criteria in order to be seen as high quality.  

How do you determine high quality offsets?

Wind turbines on a field providing clean and renewable energy.The Carbon Offset guide by the GHG Management Institute and Stockholm Environment Institute list five key criteria to help determine high quality offsets;

  1. Additional
  2. Not overestimated
  3. Permanent
  4. Not claimed by another entity
  5. Not associated with significant social or environmental harms

Additionality is perhaps one of the most difficult concepts to grasp, and is often considered more on a sliding scale of probability.  Additionality is the concept that a given offset would have only happened due to carbon credits, that is it wasn’t a project that was going ahead regardless and then credits were claimed due to a reduction in GHG’s.  As such additionality’s determination is subjective. Figuring out whether an activity is additional requires comparing it to a scenario without revenue from the sale of carbon offsets – and because we have no crystal ball we can’t see how both scenarios play out.

Points two, four and five are relatively straight forward to understand (though all are difficult to quantify and measure).  Overestimation is essentially cheating, saying you produced more credits than are actually available.  Double-dipping (not-claimed by another entity) is also fairly obvious, a credit can only be claimed once and then must be retired – you can’t sell the same credit twice! Obviously the cure can’t be worse than the poison, i.e. we can’t engage in more social and environmental harm and use climate change as the excuse.

Permanence is also a complex problem but easy to understand as a principle. This relates to the idea that the offset is a permanent reduction. However, this can be hard to qualify particularly in forestation as the carbon cycle is so complex with conflicting research that’s also very area dependent. ProPublica did a thorough investigation over the continued issues of carbon credits linked to tropical forest preservation for example.

All in all assessing projects is complex, and requires careful consideration.  When Future Neutral is integrated into a website the retailer need only approve the installation – we take care of the rest, this allows retailers to concentrate on their business and leave the complexity of offsets to us.

Finally, when assessing offsets – it’s important to go beyond neutrality.  After an offset project is chosen, how much should you buy?  If we are carbon neutral, we are upholding the status quo. We now need a net positive reduction, that is we need the future to be neutral and that means bigger reductions in the present. This is in fact the basis of the Future Neutral name!

The other challenge of course is how one pays for offsets, there are three main ways;

1 – Offset when you purchase, for example with Future Neutral – this allows you to positively offset your entire carbon footprint if used consistently across all purchases. It’s often easier to pay small amounts over the year than large lump sum payments.

2 – Offset as a subscription, some platforms allow you to pay a monthly or annual subscription to offset.

3 – Choose individual projects directly, and take the offset on yourself.  The advantage of this is you determine when you want to offset, and by how much.

See the projects we support here.