Introduction to Carbon
Carbon credits (or carbon offsets) neutralize a company's or individual's contribution to global warming. The carbon emissions are balanced out by funding projects which cause an equal reduction in emissions elsewhere.
Global Warming and Greenhouse Gases
Global warming refers to the recent increase in the Earth's temperature. The effects of this climate change are already being felt around the world. Scientists predict that temperatures will rise up to 6°C further over the next century. This may cause rises in sea level, extreme weather events such as hurricanes and heat waves, and war and disease, particularly in developing countries.
It is generally agreed that global warming is caused by greenhouse gases emitted by humans into the Earth's atmosphere. The biggest contributor is carbon dioxide, which is generated by burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil or gas. Every car or plane journey contributes directly to the Earth's change in climate. Most of the world's electricity is also generated from these fuels, despite renewable alternatives such as wind and solar power.
The ideal solution would be an immediate and drastic drop in global carbon emissions. However this is not going to happen in our lifetimes. In fact, rapid economic development in countries such as China and India, as well as ongoing growth in the rest of the world, mean that carbon emissions are still increasing year on year. The Kyoto Protocol is a first international attempt to address the issue seriously, but it has met with limited success.
Enter Carbon Credits
Carbon credits (or carbon offsets) offer an interim solution for companies and individuals. After calculating the quantity of carbon emitted by flying, driving and using electricity, the carbon emitter pays for a project that reduces carbon emissions by this same amount. Since greenhouse gases circulate freely in the atmosphere, this project can be located anywhere in the world.
Carbon Catalog lists many different types of carbon project. Those involving solar, wind and hydroelectric power generate energy from renewable sources instead of fossil fuels. Others reduce fuel use by increasing efficiency, switching fuels, or generating heat and electricity together. Many projects lower energy requirements via better lighting, materials, buildings or public transport.
After carbon dioxide, the second most important greenhouse gas is methane. While there is much less methane in the atmosphere, every tonne causes 20-70 times as much warming as a tonne of carbon dioxide. Many projects capture industrial or agricultural methane and burn it to generate energy.
Criticisms and Controversies
Questions have been raised over carbon crediting. Some argue that it offers an easy way to avoid necessary changes in the culture of consumption. While there is some truth in this, it is also clear that awareness of climate change will not transform economies overnight. As a stepping stone on the way to a cleaner future, carbon markets can be considered a good first step.
Other criticisms have been aimed at certain types of project, in particular at reforestation. The principle behind reforestation is that trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grow. However in practice it is hard to predict how long trees will remain standing before they are felled or burnt. Although Carbon Catalog includes reforestation projects, their effectiveness is a subject of controversy.
There are other reasons why some specific projects have been criticized. Some lack additionality, meaning that they would still have occurred without the support of carbon funding. Supporting such a project is not a valid way to neutralize carbon emissions. In other cases, providers have sold the same tonne of carbon more than once, or money has failed to reach the project as promised. Several certification standards have emerged to address these issues, and these are listed in Carbon Catalog alongside projects which apply them.
The aim of Carbon Catalog is to increase the level of trust and information in the carbon market. If chosen and researched carefully, we believe carbon credits can make a positive contribution to the well-being of the planet.