Carbon Offsetting – How Does It Work?

The World Resources Institute defines a carbon offset as “a unit of carbon dioxide-equivalent (CO2e) that is reduced, avoided, or sequestered to compensate for emissions occurring elsewhere”.

The University of Oxford Environmental Change Institute defines a carbon offset as “mechanism whereby individuals and corporations pay for reductions elsewhere in order to offset their own emissions”

Carbon offsets represent the reduction of one metric tonne of carbon dioxide or its equivalent in other greenhouse gases. These include six primary categories of greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6). (


It seems that the carbon offset market that I read about in the 80’s has grown into an important market, with projects sequestering units of the equivalent to one tonne of carbon in many countries in the world- across South America, the USA, Asia, Europe and Africa. There are many different types of carbon offset, including wind farm projects, reforestation projects, ensuring biodiversity, improving cooking stoves, harnessing methane projects, restoring ecosystems, landfill projects, rainforest conservation, bio mass projects, waste heat recovery and more.

The latest figures I could find were from 2009, where 8.2 billion tonnes of carbon were offset, up 68% from 2008 from the carbon market research firm, Point Carbon. This is in comparison to the 35 billion tonnes that goes into the atmosphere annually.


Some of it is not man made. Volcanic eruptions, vegetation and animal emissions and the natural burning of forests all contribute. However, the publication the  National Geographic noted that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is close to 400 parts per million (397.8 as of Jan 2014 ) “for the first time in 55 years of measurement—and probably more than 3 million years of Earth history”.

Carbon Offsetting works by investing the money that you have calculated would equate to the carbon emissions you, your family or your business emits over the period of a year and investing it in a project that works to either provide equipment that takes the carbon out of the atmosphere, or produces something that reduces our need to create carbon emissions in the first place. So for taking carbon out of the atmosphere, you can plant trees, reuse methane or invest in biodiversity. For reducing our need to create carbon emissions, you can invest in cleaner stove projects, wind power plantations, and waste heat recovery programs.

Carbon offsetting has had some serious opposition in the past. Trees, especially have been criticised as a method for sequestering carbon as they take a long time to mature, and are very susceptible to fire, climate change, disease and theft.  There was also the famous “Coldplay forest” that ended up being a forest of dead mango trees.

However, we believe at Tree Planting Holidays that reforesting areas of Africa that have lost their water, and are losing their soil is not only one of the answers to their local issues of severe unemployment, and lack of fertile land to grow subsistence crops on, it is also a way to assist the planet with carbon sequestration and forest regeneration.