Carbon offsets help reduce the global greenhouse gas total by funding projects like reforestation in Ecuador.

© Photographer: Elena Kalistratova | Agency: Dreamstime

With bands like Coldplay and Pink Floyd releasing carbon-neutral albums, airlines like Silverjet claiming carbon neutrality and a growing troop of celebrities trumpeting their low-carbon lifestyles, a person might wonder how they all do it. How do bands, businesses and people cancel out what seems like an unavoidable emission? Carbon neutrality begins with reduction. It's a concentrated effort to produce less waste and use more renewable energy. After reduction has reached its limit, or its comfortable threshold, carbon offsets can make up for the rest.

Carbon offsets are a form of trade. When you buy an offset, you fund projects that reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The projects might restore forests, update power plants and factories or increase the energy efficiency of buildings and transportation. Carbon offsets let you pay to reduce the global GHG total instead of making radical or impossible reductions of your own. GHG emissions mix quickly with the air and, unlike other pollutants, spread around the entire planet. Because of this, it doesn't really matter where GHG reductions take place if fewer emissions enter the atmosphere.

Carbon offsets are voluntary. People and businesses buy them to reduce their carbon footprints or build up their green image. Carbon offsets can counteract specific activities like air travel and driving or events like weddings and conferences.

Some environmentalists doubt the validity and effectiveness of carbon offsets. Because the commercial carbon trade is an emerging market, it's difficult to judge the quality of offset providers and projects. Trees don't always live a full life, sequestration projects (for the long-term containment of emissions) sometimes fail and offset companies occasionally deceive their customers. And voluntary offsets can easily become an excuse to overindulge and not feel guilty about it.

Carbon offsets do, however, raise awareness about lowering the GHG world total. In this article we'll learn how carbon offsets reduce global emissions.