We live in a consumer society where every product and service comes with a price. There’s a financial price, sure, but there is also a climate price measured in metric tons (MT) of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). In most cases, the GHG price for a single purchase may be small. It’s hidden from view, and doesn’t appear on the price tag or the monthly bill. But the cost of inaction is real and it shows up in the impact on human health, environmental degradation, and a looming global catastrophe. Trillions of dollars will be spent on recovery after floods, fires, storms, sea level rise and less obvious climate impacts, such as stranded assets and higher insurance rates.

While direct action by individuals, corporations, and governments to reduce carbon emissions is essential, widespread efforts can’t happen fast enough. We need carbon offsets to buy time for long-term, low carbon structural changes to the economy to take effect.

How Many Trees?

Trees are a critical component of the carbon cycle. While it’s become a cliche, planting trees is one good way to absorb carbon from the atmosphere and bring the carbon cycle back into balance. Tree planting provides a good example of how carbon offsets work. A passenger in a commercial airliner travels from Los Angeles to Chicago and back. Her share of the fuel burned during the flight pumps 250 kilograms (kg) of carbon dioxide CO2 into the atmosphere for every hour of flight time between those cities (8 hours round trip). That emits up to 2,000 kg of CO2. A tree growing in a rainforest will absorb 1,000 kg of CO2 over 40 years. So planting two trees will offset the CO2 from that flight if they grow for 40 years. But planting trees is not enough.

Altogether, a modern American lifestyle generates around 16 MT, or 16,000 kg, of carbon every year. To offset that much, each “average” person would have to plant 16 trees in rainforests each year. But, that’s not likely to happen. This is where carbon offset programs can play a positive role. Buying carbon offsets is something we can actually do today, while we are trying to figure out and act on measures that will directly reduce our carbon footprints. It only makes sense to tackle an accumulation of small carbon impacts with an accumulation of carbon offset purchases. This could be anything from planting trees to installing solar collectors. While not perfect, carbon offsets give everyone an opportunity to take immediate and effective climate action that will help restore balance to the carbon cycle. Ready to start? Here’s how:

Estimate the Carbon Footprint of Your Lifestyle

Begin the process by estimating your own carbon footprint. You could simply use the US average of 16 MT per person per year. Or to make an estimate more specific to your own lifestyle, try one of the many carbon calculators available online.

While online carbon calculators often give varied results and are not an exact science, it’s a good place to start. Because each human’s carbon emissions are different, a high level of detail is needed to estimate the impact of each lifestyle. Each calculator uses a variety of assumptions and some are much more detailed than others. To be comprehensive a calculator should address housing, transportation, food, consumer goods, and services, because they all generate GHGs.

The Nature Conservancy offers a free carbon footprint calculator that is not intended as an enticement to purchase carbon credits. Instead, they suggest a range of direct actions to reduce your carbon emissions. This calculator is both specific and easy to use. It covers all the bases and offers a basic version and a more precise advanced version. Once you’ve completed this estimate, and implemented a few of the suggested actions, you can move on to a reputable carbon provider to purchase credits. Carbonfootprint.com provides another more detailed free carbon calculator for individuals and businesses. It is tied to its own carbon offset program. You can use their calculator and purchase carbon credits or you can move on to purchase carbon credits elsewhere.

Carbon Credit Providers

There are dozens of organizations selling carbon credits. Be sure to choose verified carbon offsets from a provider that participates in a reputable certification programs such as American Carbon Registry, Climate Action Reserve, Verra, Cool Effect, and Gold Standard.

Here is a small sample of certified offset providers to choose from:

Bonneville Environmental Foundation

Carbon Footprint

Climate Trust

My Climate

Native Energy


By starting with a certified provider, you can be confident that the offset is effective. There are other factors to consider, too. The most straightforward investments are those that directly reduce the amount of fossil fuel used by funding wind farms, solar arrays, biofuels, and other renewable energy projects. Other projects seek to absorb and store atmospheric carbon through forestry or agriculture. Some have benefits beyond climate and may improve health, social justice, or economic conditions for disadvantaged populations as well as reducing carbon. In all cases, the offset provider will describe their projects so you can see what they support. Some providers, such as Cool Effect, allow donors to direct their contributions to specific projects, giving purchasers direct control of their funds. Carbon credits purchased from 501(c)3 non-profit providers are tax deductible.

Vetting Offset Providers

It’s important to be sure you’re supporting a project that is real, measurable, permanent, independently verified, and would not have taken place without the finance provided by the sale of offset credits. Here are few things to look for:

  • Certification. The certifying organization is usually mentioned prominently on the provider’s website.
  • Overhead fee percentage. Determine how much of their funding goes to projects and how much is spent on administration, salaries, and advertising. This information can sometimes be found on the providers website, by contacting the certifying agency, or checking them out on Charity Navigator.
  • Compatibility. Review the offset projects to see how well it aligns with your goals and values.
  • Shop Around: Find a good match by visiting several providers online.

Start Today

Whether you are in a position to help stem the climate crisis through direct action, carbon offsets, or a combination of both your actions will help restore the carbon cycle. The time to take action is today!