Carbon Offsetting: Buyers’ Guide 1.0

Carbon Chronicle, Steve Zwick,  25 April, 2017

Source: Steve Zwick, Ecosystem Marketplace at

“A few weeks back, my Skype started bleating impatiently.

It was my friend Hein, seeking my advice – which is odd, because Hein is one of those people I’m always running to for help. He’s a lawyer who became obsessed with computers and now makes his living protecting governments and companies from cyberattacks.

It turns out he’d been listening to a podcast I produced on passenger flights, and he’d been trying to offsets his greenhouse-gas emissions from a whole year of travel.

“I went to the sites you mentioned, and I calculated my total emissions,” he explained.

“Cool!” I said.

“Then I went to buy the offsets, and I saw they were priced at $10 per ton.”


“But, I started googling,” he continued, “and I found prices are all over the place, which doesn’t make sense.”

He’d clearly done his homework.

“A ton of carbon dioxide is a ton of carbon dioxide, no matter where it’s emitted – right?”

“Yes,” I said.

“That means an emissions-reduction is a commoditized product – they’re all the same – right?”

“From a purely emissions-reduction perspective, yes,” I said.

“Then I should buy the cheapest one, because that saves me money and promotes the most efficient way of reducing emissions, right?”

“Hmmm,” I said. “That’s true if all you want to do is reduce emissions, economic argument, but I have a soft-spot for forests, so I buy from projects that reduce emissions by helping indigenous people plant trees or save their forest, or by helping small farmers manage their land more efficiently, while those cheaper ones are financing wind farms or hydropower plants…”

He cut me off.

“I’m all for sustainable farming, but right now I just want to offset my emissions, and to do so in the most efficient way possible,” he answered. “If everybody on the planet reduces in the most efficient way possible, then we get the low-hanging fruit first and reduce global emissions faster, right?”

He was right again.

“But some of these are so cheap, and others are so expensive. Are these low-cost emission-reductions real and verifiable? Can I trust them?”

I was impressed.

“Wow, Hein, you’re actually using the lingo of the trade: there are about 20 carbon standards, and each is a little different, but their carbon accounting is based on the same science, and they all say that offsets have to be real, measurable, verifiable, and additional.”

“Different standards?” he asked. “Is that why prices are different? Some say ton, others say tonne, and some say tC2Oe…”

“They’re all metric tons, and in theory, every ton is the same amount,” I said – launching a discussion that ended with Hein offsetting his emissions and my coming to suspect that lots of people want to offset their emissions but don’t know how.

This is my effort to correct that.

It’s very much a work in progress, and I’ll make changes to it as people suggest them. So, if you’re an expert who sees errors, e-mail me at If you’re a novice who finds parts of this confusing, do the same. For now, here it is:

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