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Father and son planting a tree
Planting trees is a great way to offset your carbon footprint.

Many of our daily activities, including cooking, driving to work and even shopping for clothes, either produce or represent a specific amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This is known as your carbon footprint — and everyone has one! So, if you want to be more eco-friendly, it’s important to understand how to reduce yours.

Thankfully, you can do your part to reduce your impact on the environment in a variety of ways. One of the most well-known methods is carbon offsets, which are actions, projects or activities that reduce the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by trapping them in the ground or elsewhere. While you often hear about big corporations buying carbon offsets or declaring themselves to be “carbon neutral,” in reality, individuals can also invest in carbon offset projects to counteract their emissions-producing activities.

We want to have a more in-depth discussion about what carbon offsets actually are, how they relate to your carbon footprint and the options you have to reduce your personal impact on the planet today.

What is Your Carbon Footprint?

While we briefly touched on it above, your carbon footprint is much more complex than just calculating the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) produced by your car or the gas you use to cook. Your carbon footprint is the sum of all the greenhouse gas emissions generated by your actions and lifestyle decisions. Yes, CO2 is a greenhouse gas, but there are several other harmful greenhouse gases produced by human activity, including methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases. These gases trap heat from solar energy and prevent it from leaving the atmosphere.

Infographic on the greenhouse effect
Source: Adapted from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 

Here are some of the most common activities and life choices that comprise your carbon footprint:

  • Your energy usage: Unless it’s renewable, the electricity you consume in your home is generated by burning coal or natural gas, both of which are fossil fuels.
  • Your diet: According to the EPA, 9% of all greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture such as cows, agricultural soils and rice production.1
  • Your travel: A whopping 29% of all greenhouse gas emissions produced by humans can be attributed to transportation. This includes the burning of petroleum used to power the cars, trucks, ships, trains and planes that get us and our goods from one place to another.1
  • Your clothing: The next time you buy a shirt, remember its carbon footprint, as the fashion industry accounts for approximately 10% of all carbon emissions.2

The EPA offers an effective carbon footprint calculator to help you start the process in your own life. It factors in your home’s energy usage, your transportation choices and your waste habits. If you’re looking for a more in-depth analysis, The Nature Conservancy’s carbon calculator considers how much you spend on clothes and even how much meat and dairy you eat.

Now that you know what makes up your carbon footprint, let’s talk about how you can reduce or neutralize it by purchasing carbon offsets.

How are Carbon Offsets Generated?

To generate a carbon offset, you must invest in a specific activity that captures, destroys or stores GHGs that would otherwise be emitted into the atmosphere. This allows you to claim a certain amount of your pollution has been sequestered or neutralized. Organizations such as The Gold Standard or Green-e Climate can certify that your dollars truly fund a real, permanent, measurable and verified carbon reduction project.

A few examples of the projects recognized by Green-e include:3

  • Capturing methane gas emissions from landfills, coal mines and livestock
  • Improving forest management
  • Organic waste digestion and composting
  • Investing in renewable energy projects
Two brown and white cows
In 2017, 9% of all greenhouse gas emissions generated in the U.S. came from agriculture such as cows, agricultural soils, and rice production, according to the EPA.

How Do Carbon Offsets Work?

Here’s an easy metaphor for carbon offsets: You go outside and plant enough trees to completely counterbalance your gasoline usage. With real carbon offsets, though, rather than you planting the trees, you’re paying for someone else to plant them on your behalf. The idea is simple — while you aren’t physically doing the act of reducing emissions, you’re nevertheless investing in the wellbeing of the planet by funding projects that reduce these not-so-good gases.

Carbon offsets are measured in tonnes of CO2 or the equivalent amount of another greenhouse gas that would have the same environmental impact as that amount of carbon.However, it’s difficult to put a blanket price on offsets for a variety of reasons:

  • There’s no set price on greenhouse gases
  • Each project varies in cost
  • Each project sequesters a different amount of GHGs

Generally, though, carbon offsets are a fairly cheap commodity. An individual can become carbon neutral for less than $100 a year.5 Since the emissions profile for a business is on a different scale, it could range from hundreds to thousands of dollars, depending on how clean or dirty their footprint is.

What’s the Difference Between Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) and Carbon Offsets?

We talked a lot about carbon offsets, but that’s just one way you can become more environmentally friendly. Renewable Energy Certificates, otherwise known as RECs, are the currency of the renewable energy industry, and they can also reduce your carbon footprint.

RECs and offsets are very similar, which is why it can be difficult to understand their differences. It all comes down to what kind of emissions we’re talking about:

  • RECs address the emissions produced from generating electricity. These emissions are known as scope 2 emissions. RECs “avoid” greenhouse gas emissions, since renewable energy produces no emissions in the first place.4
  • Offsets address the emissions already generated from an individual or business. These neutralize all forms of emissions — scope 1, scope 2 and scope 3 — as a net adjustment after the emissions have already been produced and sequestered.4
Wind turbine
RECs generated from wind power is a great way to offset your scope 2 emissions.

Are Carbon Offsets Worth it?

Short answer: Yes.

Long answer: Both RECs and carbon offsets seek emission reductions. However, their reasons for existence are fundamentally different. RECs give life to the renewable energy industry, as they validate all renewable energy produced ever. Carbon offsets address the emissions that have already been generated by putting them back into the ground, storing them in trees or removing them from the atmosphere.

If you’re still confused, we like this explanation from the EPA:

“Think of offsets and RECs as two tools in your sustainability toolbox – like a hammer and a saw. They are not interchangeable. Each tool is used in building a house, but each is used to accomplish specific tasks. One is not more important or better than the other.” 4

sun shining on solar panels
In addition to carbon offsets, Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs) generated from solar power are a vital part of your sustainability toolbox.

Carbon Offsets are Part of the Answer to Climate Change

In sustainability circles, you often hear the phrase, “There’s no silver bullet to solve climate change.” This is industry jargon for the idea that there’s no one path for preventing global warming and catastrophic climate change. All paths are correct, and they all work to prevent this crisis from getting worse than it already is.

In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issues a report that we have until 2030 to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels if we want to keep our planet’s global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius.6 In order to prevent this, Earth’s leading scientists warn that we must change how we manage land, produce food, dispose of food and simply eat less meat if we want to halt the climate crisis. As a retail electricity provider, this means we must also be more energy efficient and show our customers how to do the same.

This is why carbon offsets and RECs are so important. While they are only two pieces of the giant puzzle that can halt climate change, each piece must work together and do its part. This includes you and all of us at Chariot Energy.


Sources:

  1. https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions
  2. http://2. https://www.unece.org/info/media/presscurrent-press-h/forestry-and-timber/2018/un-alliance-aims-to-put-fashion-on-path-to-sustainability/doc.html
  3. https://www.green-e.org/certified-resources/carbon-offsets
  4. https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2018-03/documents/gpp_guide_recs_offsets.pdf
  5. https://www.energysage.com/other-clean-options/carbon-offsets/costs-and-benefits-carbon-offsets/
  6. https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/
  7. https://marketbusinessnews.com/what-is-the-greenhouse-effect/