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Despite the fact that many of us stopped commuting and skipped the airport due to the pandemic, our carbon footprints didn’t disappear this year. Perhaps you went on a long road trip for vacation, or drove to avoid public transit or flying (I drove almost 10,000 miles this year, despite working from my bedroom). And then there’s the emissions from the food you eat, heating and cooling your home, the stuff you buy—it all adds up.

For environmental impacts we can’t avoid, the growing market of carbon offsets offers the promise of being able to negate our emissions. But it can be tricky to understand these offsets and be sure they are actually doing what they claim.

The options for offsets

When you buy offsets, you’re essentially indirectly paying for practices that capture or reduce greenhouse gas emissions that otherwise wouldn’t have happened.

Today, there are a lot of projects around the globe capturing greenhouse gases in different ways. Probably the most obvious and well-known are forestry programs. Mossy Earth, for example, offers a carbon calculator and ways to negate that impact through planting native trees. Planting trees can have its pitfalls—simply planting a farm of identical trees, for example, can hurt biodiversity—but the basic idea is that the more trees are planted, the more those forests can suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and incorporate it into their roots and shoots.

Other companies are creating offsets by stashing carbon not in trees, but in the ground. NativeEnergy, a company developing offset programs, includes regenerative agriculture among its options. In one project in Montana, for example, ranchers generate offsets through carefully managed grazing that benefits prairie grasses, which in turn help store carbon in the soil.

There are also programs that focus on industrial chemicals, helping factories switch from using potent greenhouse gases in their operations to more benign alternatives. Other projects target methane, a particularly powerful greenhouse gas. By capping a retired landfill with cement and capturing the methane produced by it, these offset programs can avoid the climate-warming contribution of that methane.

How to find a reputable carbon-offset program

Not every carbon credit program does what they say. As an investigation by ProPublica found, some forestry-based projects have not actually conserved the land they promised to.

Anastasia O’Rourke, the managing director of the Carbon Containment Lab at Yale University, says that while forestry offsets get a lot of attention, the less-glamorous work of capping landfills and cutting back on industrial greenhouse gases tends to produce offsets that are relatively easy to keep track of. “With forestry-type systems or large-scale land based approaches, it tends to be very complicated on the governance side to really know what’s actually happening on the ground,” she says. “These [methane capture programs] tend to be fairly high quality products and very measurable and able to be verified.”

Jennifer Cooper, the vice president of NativeEnergy, says that the offset industry had some missteps in its early days, but has since come a long way and now has greater oversight.

O’Rourke agrees, “I do think that the whole infrastructure has matured and is a lot more reliable than it used to be,” she says. “[But] not all offsets are created equal. There are some projects that are definitely more reliable than others in terms of really mitigating climate change.”

Some key things to look for include whether the company has been evaluated by a third party, and whether the offsets are being logged into an official registry. In other words, you need to be sure that the organization is truly doing what they say, and that, once sold, the offset is taken off the market so that it can’t be purchased multiple times, thereby getting rid of any benefit to the planet.

A major third party program doing the work to certify companies is Green-e, which lists companies meeting stringent standards on their website. Beyond that, Pat Brewer, an analyst at Center for Resource Solutions (the nonprofit that runs Green-e), says that it’s also smart to look at the website of the company you’re interested in and see if they disclose the standards they use to produce offsets. If they aren’t transparent, that’s probably not a good sign.

In the end, it’s also just up to you and your values. Most offsets have some sort of co-benefits, such as improving biodiversity, public health, or creating jobs. You should pick projects based on which causes you want to support.

Is it worth it?

Let’s be clear: the impacts of most individuals are microscopic compared to the impacts of energy companies and other large corporations. Unless countries get serious about making steep emissions reductions, our individual offsets are probably not going to avert disastrous climate change.

But, in this time of impending climate crisis, O’Rourke says that every little bit counts. In addition to cutting back on our impact where we can, offsets offer the potential to negate emissions that might otherwise be near-impossible to avoid. If you can’t afford a Tesla or rooftop covered in solar panels, offsets are a cheaper option. “I think [carbon offsetting is] good because it’s an engagement in really understanding how to make a more sustainable world and feel like you contribute to that,” says O’Rourke. “I think most people could, if they calculated it, afford to actually buy the offsets if they wanted to. And if a lot of people did it, it would add up.”

The cost might actually surprise you. Remember those 10,000 miles I drove? According to a calculator on TerraPass, a company that sells carbon offsets, I would need to pay $38.80 to offset all those long drives. That doesn’t seem so bad for 7,776 pounds of carbon dioxide.

Cooper at NativeEnergy adds that though your offset may be small, you can view that purchase as effectively helping to scale up emerging climate solutions. In the case of regenerative grazing, for example, ranchers might not normally be willing to take the financial risk of the fencing, equipment, and labor hours needed to implement a new system. But with the money from selling offsets, those ranchers could more readily build a sustainable relationship with the land.

“If you’re concerned about those emissions from a flight or from road trips that you can’t avoid, I think that purchasing a legitimate carbon offset is a really good way to alleviate some of that stress, while also sending a valuable signal to the market,” says Brewer.

It’s not a panacea or a way to fully absolve ourselves of responsibility, but offsets can help, especially where eliminating emissions won’t happen easily—just be sure to do your homework to find a solid program.

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