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Carbon offsetting

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Everyday actions – like driving a car, flying and even using your computer – produce emissions of carbon dioxide, which contribute to climate change. Find out about how you can offset your unavoidable emissions, and learn about the quality mark that shows whether a carbon offset is quality assured.

Steps to take to tackle your emissions

Before choosing to offset, think about taking action to tackle your emissions in the following order:

1. Calculate

Calculate how much carbon dioxide you produce at home and through the transport you use (this is your 'carbon footprint'). 

2. Avoid

Once you know the size of your carbon footprint, you can start to act.  You can avoid many emissions, for example by walking instead of driving, or turning off the TV or computer when it is not in use.

3. Reduce

You can then take action to reduce your remaining emissions. Examples are using public transport instead of driving, using low-energy light bulbs or turning down your thermostat at home.

4. Offset

Many emissions cannot currently be avoided or reduced. You could consider offsetting some or all of these remaining emissions.

How does offsetting work?

First you need to calculate the emissions you produce. You can do this using the ‘Calculate your carbon footprint’ link above.

You can then choose to offset some or all of your unavoidable emissions. For example, you could offset your car mileage for a year or a flight abroad.

Next, you buy an equivalent amount of ‘carbon credits’ from projects that have saved carbon dioxide. These projects rely on your offsetting money to fund them.

Choosing an offset

Look for the Quality Assurance Scheme for Carbon Offsetting mark

Offsets with the quality mark

The Quality Assurance Scheme for Carbon Offsetting has been created to help you choose a good quality offset.

Carbon offsets that meet requirements set by the government can be sold with a quality mark by an offset provider. To buy one of these offsets, look for the quality mark shown at the top of this page. The mark also appears if you click the link 'More about the government's carbon offsetting quality mark'.

The quality mark means that the offset provider will:

  • calculate your emissions accurately
  • sell good quality carbon credits that keep to the rules of the Kyoto Protocol and have been checked by the United Nations 
  • cancel the credits within a year of you buying them, and make sure the same credit isn't bought twice 
  • have clear prices for their credits (how much they cost per tonne) 
  • give you information about the role of offsetting in tackling climate change and advice on reducing your carbon footprint

Offsets without the quality mark

The government can only vouch for the quality of offsets sold through the Quality Assurance Scheme.  If you want to buy offsets that don’t carry the quality mark, you might like to consider:

  • checking that the offsets represent a real reduction in carbon emissions
  • checking that this has been verified by a third party

Where does the money go?

There are many different types of offsetting projects, generally involving energy efficiency or renewable energy. Here are some examples of the kind of projects that could produce a credit used for offsetting:

  • providing people in Aceh, Indonesia with solar cookers and heat retention containers for cooking, heating, sterilising water and preserving food
  • introducing energy efficiency measures at a resort hotel in India
  • harnessing river hydropower in Fiji
  • establishing the first wind energy plant in Cyprus
  • collecting methane to generate electricity from landfill sites in Durban, South Africa
  • generating electricity from the residue produced by a sugar mill in Ecuador

Some offsetting schemes involve planting trees, but it can take many years for the environmental benefits to be realised. It's also difficult to measure how much carbon dioxide is actually saved. For this reason, very few such projects have currently been approved by the United Nations. It's not expected that offsets from such projects will carry the quality mark.

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