Carbon offsets are designed to compensate for the carbon dioxide emissions we create. You can offset your carbon by paying for projects that absorb carbon out of the air or avoid future emissions. Examples include projects that plant trees or support wind farms. 

But, carbon offsets are only a temporary solution to a huge problem. They’re best for offsetting carbon emissions from activities that you can’t avoid, like flying on airplanes. With things that do have better alternatives, however, it’s more cost-effective to reduce or completely eliminate those emissions in the first place!

Megan Hall: Welcome to Possibly, where we take on huge problems like the future of our planet, and break them down into small questions with unexpected answers. I’m Megan Hall. 

Today, our question comes from Emma Abele, a Mechanical Engineering student at Brown. She says, 

Emma: “Is it worth your time and money to offset your carbon? Or should you only try to reduce or should you do both?

We had Colleen Keenan + Dana Altoaimi look into this question. Welcome, Colleen+ Dana!

Colleen Keenan: Hi, Megan! 

Dana Altoaimi: Hello!

Megan Hall: So, what are carbon offsets anyway? 

Colleen Keenan: Alright, let’s start with the first word- carbon. This refers to the carbon dioxide emissions that help create climate change.

Colleen Keenan: Carbon offsets are designed to compensate for the emissions we already create. 

Dana Altoaimi: Emma is looking into offsets because she does her best to reduce her emissions…

Emma: but there’s some things I will still do that will put carbon in the atmosphere.

Dana Altoaimi: Emma flies to London twice a year to see her family.

Megan Hall: So, if Emma wanted to use carbon offsets to cancel out the impact of her flights, how would she do that? 

Dana Altoaimi: The way it works is, she would calculate the emissions she created flying to London. You can do this with an online calculator.

Colleen Keenan:  And then she would pay an organization to do something that reduces the amount of carbon in the air, or prevents about the same amount of carbon emissions.

Megan Hall: So, after Emma flies to London, she might pay someone to plant a bunch of trees or help build a wind farm? 

Colleen Keenan: Exactly.

Megan Hall: How should Emma decide which carbon offsets to buy?

Dana Altoaimi: It’s a bit of a wild west out there. Some carbon offset programs make promises to offset tons of carbon for just a couple of dollars. 

Colleen Keenan: It can be tough to verify if these offsets are actually doing anything. 

Dana Altoaimi: But, there are well verified, reputable programs. Gold standard is probably the best known.  

Megan Hall: So, what’s the take-away here? Should Emma invest in carbon offset projects?

Dana Altoaimi: In general, the most sustainable thing to do is to personally avoid activities that create greenhouse gas emissions whenever that’s possible. 

Colleen Keenan: So offsets make sense as a short term solution for things like flights when there isn’t an emissions-free alternative.  

Dana Altoaimi: But, for emissions from activities like driving a car, your money is better spent investing in a more fuel efficient, or electric vehicle. 

Colleen Keenan: You could also just try to drive less.  

Megan Hall: Great! Thanks, Colleen+Dana

That’s it for today. For more information or to ask a question about the way you recycle, use energy, or make any other choice that affects the planet, go to

Possibly is a co-production of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society and the Public’s Radio. 

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