Dear Umbra,

I’ve been reading the whole back-and-forth about carbon offsets, and it seems strange to me that most (all?) of the ones I’ve seen fund projects that, while worthwhile, may or may not result in the promised emissions reduction. It seems that a simple way around this problem would be to buy actual emissions permits from an established carbon market like Europe. Are there any companies or organizations that would allow me to do this? (Yes, I already conserve about as much as is possible for me at the moment.)

Athens, Ga.

Dearest Jane,

We must fill in other readers. Wouldn’t it be great if Jane could calculate how much carbon she still emits, and somehow remove that carbon from the atmosphere? She can’t, but she can offset (maybe a better term would be compensate for) her carbon emissions by supporting projects that will reduce overall global carbon emissions. For example, she can give money to an organization building windmills, and the organization in turn guarantees that the wind power generated with her funds will replace equivalent carbon emissions to Jane’s. Jane uses an emissions calculator provided by the company, and the company has a set fee per ton of “offset” carbon.

Stop the world — I want to get offsets.

Image: iStockphoto

Carbon offsets are becoming a desirable green consumer product. They are a good thing insofar as they provide support for low-carbon infrastructure. They are a poor thing insofar as they become indulgences. As you no doubt know, buying offsets should in no way substitute for reducing your individual emissions, making good consumer decisions, and agitating for change. You do not get to buy an unnecessarily large car and try to make it OK by buying an offset, because the carbon your car produces is not removed. There are multiple business models at work in the carbon-offset market, and the regulations and oversight that do exist are not only diverse but also basically voluntary. It can be hard to know whether a company is reputable, and/or if their projects work.

Jane, I asked a professional climate pal about your Gristmill-induced concerns about offset shopping and buying European carbon credits, and received two interesting suggestions. The Voluntary Carbon Offsets Information Portal, of the Tufts Climate Initiative and the Stockholm Environment Institute, is a nice clear compilation of basic information about carbon offsets, their purpose, and when to consider using them (also great for the rest of you who are confused by my muy brief overview). They describe the criteria by which you should judge any company selling offsets, and evaluate and recommend 13 specific companies. Take what you’ve read in Gristmill and read the VCOIP information, and you may be able to make an offset shopping decision about which you feel solid.

You also wondered about buying carbon emissions permits from the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme. Another muy brief overview: the E.U. is behaving as a single emitting entity under the Kyoto Protocol, and has instituted a carbon credits trading scheme amongst member states to meet emissions reductions targets. An overall emissions ceiling has been set; permits, or allowances (EUAs), to emit have been auctioned and can be traded. The scheme does not include individual emitters, but my pal provided one source, a European organization that is buying the EUAs and retiring them from the market. The intention of that organization, TheCompensators, is to lower the overall E.U. emissions ceiling through reducing the availability of EUAs, and to involve individuals in the process. You can become a member of the group. I know absolutely nothing about these people other than what I read on the website, but at the very least it is a place to begin your search. I hope this helps.