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Carbon offsets are an important early step

Voluntary carbon offsets are a grassroots development adding to the portfolio of regulated mitigation strategies.

A carbon offset project implemented specifically to reduce the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is a legitimate means of financing carbon reductions through regional and global projects. These reductions are quantified as carbon credits where one credit is equivalent to one tonne of atmospheric CO2 avoided.

These can be bought to counterbalance or offset the purchaser's greenhouse gas emissions, making them effectively carbon neutral. While they are not currently regulated by an internationally agreed body, voluntary carbon offsets that follow one of the robust developing standards will comply with the basic criteria to assure effective offsets. Credits used to meet policy and legally binding requirements are already offsetting emissions and cannot be double-counted as voluntary carbon offsets.

It is hoped that the growing voluntary market will foster a more rapid implementation of widespread policy initiatives to reduce carbon emissions. The aim of managing the carbon cycle is reducing net carbon emissions and ultimately stabilizing and decreasing the atmospheric CO2 concentration (Global Carbon Project 2003), voluntary offset mechanisms work specifically to make individual project activities carbon neutral— that is, with no net effect on the atmospheric CO2 concentration.

Voluntary offset mechanisms either reduce carbon emissions elsewhere equivalent to those emitted by the carbon neutral project or create carbon sinks that sequester carbon equal to project emissions plus the radiative forcing of these emissions. The net balance of carbon sinks and sources determines the growth in atmospheric CO2 and it is that balance that is targeted by carbon offset mechanisms.

The Tufts Climate Initiative and the David Suzuki Foundation provide additional information on what carbon offsets are.

Becoming carbon neutral involves three basic steps:

  • CALCULATE carbon emissions and other greenhouse gases from activities
  • REDUCE emissions wherever possible through increased efficiencies
  • BALANCE the remainder by purchasing carbon offsets
Global Carbon Project (2003) Science framework and implementation. Earth System Science Partnership Report No. 1; GCP Report No. 1, 69pp, Canberra