What is a carbon offset?
Climate change as described by Environment Canada is a long-term shift in average weather conditions over time, including temperature, precipitation, winds, and other indicators. The impacts are far reaching -- affecting infrastructure, weather patterns, wildlife and landscapes.
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Greenhouse gases are contributors to rapid climatic change. A carbon offset represents a purchased credit of greenhouse gas reductions, usually sold by the tonne. One tonne of greenhouse gases fills approximately a two-storey house. For example, some airlines offer travellers the option to offset greenhouse gases used in their air travel. The fee charged is based on the amount of tonnes of greenhouse gases created. This money is invested in projects such as renewable energy initiatives that will in theory reduce the equivalent amount.
A trip to central Canada from HRM is approximately a half a tonne. Depending on the project, one tonne of greenhouse gases could be a few dollars or much higher. Carbon offsetting is a financial tool that helps to spur the growth of green initiatives to reduce carbon in the atmosphere.
The most direct way to reduce greenhouse gases, however, is to create real change by reducing energy, taking sustainable transportation modes, switching to cleaner fuels and renewable energy, retrofitting existing buildings and designing new buildings to high green standards. If the goal is carbon neutrality, then carbon offsets will be needed. To help you get a sense of the carbon footprint of different activities, organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund and Zerofootprint have developed carbon calculators.
It is wise to be an informed consumer when purchasing carbon credits, as some programs subscribe to higher standards than others. The David Suzuki Foundation has produced a handy guide on purchasing carbon offsets (www.davidsuzuki.org/Publications/offset_vendors.asp).
The Gold Standard is a recognized certification body for carbon offsetting projects. Beyond offsetting, there are other financial strategies that are currently being used worldwide to reduce carbon with some success. These include options such as carbon taxes and cap-and-trade programs. A carbon tax is a tax on the carbon in fossil fuels. Taxes are often reinvested in growing a green economy.
Cap-and-trade programs are structured where companies are allocated a certain amount of emission credits to emit up to a set amount. If they go over this allocation they must buy from those who are polluting less. There is an economic driver to be more efficient in both models.
Rochelle Owen is director of sustainability at Dalhousie University. She has worked in the environment and sustainability field for 19 years; email@example.com.