Understand carbon offsetting: what, why, who and how

May 4, 2021

Navigating your way through the voluntary carbon market can feel like a minefield. With a mass of abbreviations, different standards and project types, the apparent complexity can be perplexing. But understanding how different projects work helps to pair you with the perfect project for your goals and values. Below you will find the what, the how, the who and the why of carbon offsetting.

WHAT is carbon offsetting?

Carbon offsetting is seen as a way of balancing the books between how much CO2 is emitted and how much is sequestered. When talking about carbon neutrality, this sum focuses only on emissions of CO2, the most common greenhouse gas (GHG). But when discussing climate neutrality, it includes CO2 equivalents (CO2e) such as methane and nitrous oxide which also contribute to global warming. Being carbon or climate neutral is sometimes referred to as Net-Zero, where the quantity of CO2 added to the atmosphere is no more than the amount that is taken away.  


To achieve the Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming to just 1.5℃, we must reach carbon neutrality by 2050 according to the IPCC. This means that the amount of carbon we emit is equal to the amount sequestered, thus the quantity of CO2 in the atmosphere will not increase any further. That being said, we are currently living with the highest concentration of atmospheric CO2 that humans have ever experienced. The last time CO2 concentrations were this high, sea levels were up to 30 meters higher and giant woolly mammoth-like creatures roamed the earth. 


This suggests that being carbon neutral is no longer enough, we must become carbon negative. This requires taking CO2 out of the atmosphere and storing it, either in biomass, in soil or underground. Being carbon negative has been described as climate positive by some businesses due to the beneficial impact this additional carbon sequestration has on the planet. After working hard to reduce carbon emissions as far as possible, the final step towards becoming carbon negative is to invest in carbon offsetting projects.

Seedling being planted in the Trees for Global Benefit project in Uganda, certified by Plan Vivo.

HOW do offsets work and WHO makes them?

 Various different organisations sell carbon offsetting projects in the form of carbon credits, where one credit is equal to one tonne of CO2. The different organisations are each associated with different types of projects, with their own characteristics and co-benefits. ZeroMission predominantly works with two different standards , Plan Vivo and Gold Standard. The different types of projects offered by these organisations  are also sometimes certified by REDD+ or Fairtrade.


Plan Vivo projects focus on tree planting and agroforestry methods to sequester atmospheric CO2, meaning that CO2 is removed from the atmosphere and stored in trees. This type of offsetting is often referred to as a nature-based solution. Plan Vivo projects are always community-led and at least 60% of the money goes directly to local people working with the project on the ground, normally smallholder farmers. Alongside removing CO2 from the atmosphere, these types of projects also provide income and food security as well as helping to protect biodiversity.


Many Plan Vivo projects are also certified by REDD+, which stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in developing countries. By giving a financial incentive for developing nations to keep their primary forests intact, they are able to flourish without damaging the natural environment that the whole world now depends on. While the additionality of these projects is often questioned, preserving and protecting existing forests is essential if we are to be within a chance of keeping warming below 1.5℃. Not only this, forest conservation is essential for the future of biodiversity.  

The reforestation project Halo Verde in East Timor is the first of its kind on the island to be certified by Plan Vivo. Photo property of FCOTI.

In contrast to the methods described above, Gold Standard works with avoiding emissions through simple technological solutions being implemented in key places, resulting in avoided emissions. This means that the work done by the projects stops the continuation of emissions that would have occurred if the project did not exist. This can involve fuel-efficient, solar or biogas cookstoves which reduce the pressure on the local forest for firewood, resulting in the forest being conserved. Wood is not burnt, so carbon remains stored within the trees which keep growing, continuing to sequester more carbon as they do so. This type of project greatly improves the health of participants too, as the fumes associated with cooking on an indoor open fire can result in eye diseases and severe respiratory problems. Participants are also given more free time as they do not have to collect firewood, and this especially benefits women and children who would typically be responsible for collecting it.


The Fairtrade Climate Standard was developed with Gold Standard in order to help finance climate resilience in the communities most affected by climate change. Like other products certified by Fairtrade, their carbon credits also have a focus on human wellbeing and equity. The projects often involve cocoa and coffee cultivators whose crops are very sensitive to even the smallest changes in temperature. The premium price associated with Fairtrade carbon credits is used to address the inequity between those who contribute to climate change and those who must suffer its consequences.


WHY does this matter?

While there are lots of different ways to offset emissions, it is valuable for buyers to know the ins and outs of the offsets they are buying. Understanding the process of offsetting and the associated co-benefits allow you to offset with pride, knowing that you have helped preserve the ecosystem of an endangered species or improved the living conditions of a poor community. So whether you go with Plan Vivo or Gold Standard, rest assured you have made a positive contribution to the planet and to the lives of those who need it most.



• IPCC https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/

• Climate Central https://www.climatecentral.org/news/the-last-time-co2-was-this-high-humans-didnt-exist-15938

• EDF  https://www.edf.org/climate/voluntary-carbon-markets


Author: Ashley Farber, intern at ZeroMission


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