Climate Change: Carbon Offset Program

What to Look for in a Carbon Offset Program

Ask questions to determine whether a particular offset is a good choice for you and your conscience.

Caveat Emptor, or "buyer beware," is the motto of today’s market for buyers looking to balance their carbon usage with a contribution to green activities. With many divergent groups offering a variety of attractive options, who knows how to judge good, better and best?

As many have discovered, trying to calculate your carbon footprint and then find a credible carbon offset can be a complicated process. But there are some questions that you as a consumer can ask to determine whether a particular offset is a good choice for you and your conscience.

Questions about the permanence, additionality, leakage and standards (PALS) are the cornerstones of offset quality. Here are some of the questions you should ask when looking for an offset program:

  • Will the project be around long enough to actually capture the carbon over time and keep it there?
  • Is there a reserve of carbon offsets to buffer for potential carbon losses resulting from storms or other natural events?

Forest carbon projects that produce carbon offsets should have measures in place to protect the forests, and carbon stored within, over the long term. Legal instruments such as conservation easements and protected area status, where they exist and are appropriate, are two examples of such measures. Project developers should also maintain an insurance reserve of carbon offsets that are not sold or retired, which can be used to replace carbon offsets lost due to unexpected events such as fire or hurricanes.

  • Would that work have happened anyway?
  • Is the work being undertaken in the project a business-as-usual practice?

Your offset should be supporting projects that represent practices that would not have happened anyway, and therefore are not business-as-usual. These include efforts to protect and reforest land, improve the management of forests and to preserve forests, where such practices are not business-as-usual.


If the new carbon project is going to change the use of land from an old purpose to the new carbon storage purpose, is the old use of the land simply going to be displaced to another forested area?

Offset project developers should have a satisfactory response to this question that takes into account agricultural and timber markets, land-use changes, and the likelihood that preserving forests, reducing timber removed from forests or re-planting trees in one location would move farming or logging operations to another forested location up the road or across the country.

Standards of verification
  • Is an accredited third party verifying the quality of the offsets and holding the supplier to a high standard?
  • How will the project be measured and monitored and how will you the consumer be kept informed?

Groups like the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) and Climate Action Reserve (CAR) have developed standards to guide the design of voluntary forest carbon projects. The approval by independent, third-party verifiers assessing a project against these standards can go a long way to assuring most buyers concerns are addressed.

Follow Your PALS and Reduce Your Personal Emissions

By paying close attention to these offset “PALS,” consumers should be able to ask the questions that need to be answered to ensure the voluntary carbon offset programs that they contribute to have real and verifiable results when it comes to reducing the buildup of carbon pollution that is causing climate change.

At the same time, don’t forget that the most effective personal action to help reduce the buildup of carbon pollution that is causing climate change is to make choices that will reduce your personal carbon emissions.


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