Carbon offsets and the climate crisis

Frans Verhagen - April, 2008

Creating Sustainable Communities

Frans C. Verhagen, M. Div., M.I.A., Ph.D. is a sustainability sociologist, co-founder of Earth and Peace Education International (EPE), and director of its sustainability education and research program. He is also the founder and president of the International Institute of Monetary Transformation.

In April 2008 representatives of more than 160 countries began formal negotiations in Bangkok, Thailand, on a treaty to address climate change, with the secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, urging governments to help in saving the planet. “Saving our planet requires you to be ambitious in what you aim, and, equally, in how hard you work to reach your goal,” Mr. Ban told delegates in a recorded video message. The weeklong meeting laid out the agenda for the talks, which are scheduled to conclude at the end of 2009.
One of the main challenges for negotiators will be reintroducing the United States to a global system of emissions reductions. The United States signed but never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 agreement that binds wealthy countries to make specific cuts in greenhouse gases. The new treaty would follow the Kyoto Protocol after its binding terms expire in 2012.

   A rancorous meeting in Bali (December 2007) exposed deep fissures over how countries plan to approach global warming. Some countries disagree over what role wealthy and poor countries should play in reducing emissions. And even among wealthy countries there is significant discord. Countries also disagree on how much to compensate developing countries for their efforts in reducing global warming. The agreement reached at that meeting called for wealthier countries to help finance cleaner-burning energy technologies and non-fossil-fuel alternatives in developing countries.

  The United Nations calculates that at least $200 billion will be needed by 2030 for these changes. As a measure of the enormous potential shortfall, the world’s wealthiest country, the United States, has so far proposed to contribute only $2 billion over two years.

  While governments attempt to resolve their differences and move forward with a global plan for mitigating or adjusting to the impacts of climate change, what can youngsters do, in school and at home, to become constructive international participants in responding to this most urgent social and ecological problem and challenge of our time?

   One ongoing activity for youngsters and their families is to measure their carbon foot print and to reduce it. A carbon foot print refers to the amount of greenhouse gases (GHG) their daily activities emit. To measure these total daily emissions, they first list their daily activities and then visit a carbon offset organization,  such as , where they will find a carbon calculator which determines the GHG’s emitted for each one. Once their baseline GHG emission total is added up, a family can start discussing how they can reduce it. They can even develop a carbon budget for one year or develop a cap to be reached over several years. For example, how can they use electricity more efficiently? reduce temperatures for heat or air conditioning? use mass transit, tune up the car and drive less to reduce emissions of car travel? David Gershon’s Low Carbon Diet, listed with the educational resources in Transitions 2(1), shows how a family can loose 5000 pounds of CO2 in 30 days.

  However serious a family or school becomes in reducing its carbon footprint, humans will always produce GHG gases, particularly, CO2. A second activity, therefore, is for youngsters and families to engage in buying carbon offsets. This means paying for the carbon emissions that one is (not yet) able to avoid, e.g., by car and air travel. Personally, I have cut air travel by one third in the last two years and I have offset my remaining GHG emissions of air and car travel by sending $10 per 1000 miles to two organizations in Africa: the Center for Democracy and Peace in Sierra Leone  and the Solar Energy Lighting Fund,  which provides simple solar electric equipment for rural residents. By supporting these organizations to produce a more ecologically sound energy system, which reduces GHG emissions, I am able, therefore, to offset to a certain degree the impact of the carbon emissions emitted when I travel. There are over 100 different carbon offset organizations by now, both for profit and non-profit, which accept payments of different amounts to offset carbon emissions. They invest in planting trees, renewable energy projects or technologies etc., all of which reduce carbon emissions. Investing in carbon offsets from these organizations, therefore, is an investment in a more ecologically sound energy system that leads to greater well being of people and planet. (For a comparison of 12 of these organizations, visit

   Unfortunately, however, many carbon offset organizations do not invest in carbon reducing projects in agricultural societies in the global South though it is these societies that are the planet’s ecological creditors, while it is the industrialized societies in the global North, who are its ecological debtors. In fact, it is the pollution emitted as part of the North’s industrialization over the last two hundred years which is the main cause of human-produced or anthropogenic GHG emissions. Thus, it is only fair that citizens in the global North push these organizations to invest funds from carbon offsets in the global South, where people have the hardest time adjusting to the rising temperatures that lead to poor crops, increased food prices, insufficient water, unpredictable weather, coastal flooding, etc. Such advocacy can be a third activity for schools and families. Some students, particularly in high school, may even advocate for members of the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX), which was launched five years ago and which is providing a national carbon emissions trading program in the U.S., to direct the potential environmental and economic benefits of establishing a national carbon offsets market to the developing world.

   A fourth activity, which would include both carbon foot printing and carbon offsetting, is the recent emergence in the UK and increasingly in the USA of Carbon Reduction Action Groups (CRAGGERS)  These groups, based upon geography, age or other criterion, are being formed to assist members to become ever more efficient at carbon reduction by mutual support or criticism. Why not start one in the school or in the neighborhood? It will be fun to compete with oneself, other group members and other Craggers in developing an ever simpler life style where being more is considered more important than having more.