Green Your Fleet: Can Carbon Offsets Get You Where You’re Going?

In December 2017, Google announced that it would buy 536 megawatts of wind power to become the largest corporate consumer of green energy, and to fulfill its promise—made just a year earlier—to purchase enough green power to cover all of its electricity needs for the year. They only pulled it off on paper—some of the energy projects are not yet operational—but they are still at the forefront of a growing trend of corporations making a determined effort to transition to a carbon-neutral business model.

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Google’s strategy works well for achieving carbon-neutral electricity consumption, but what if a significant amount of your carbon emissions is from transportation?

Yesterday, we looked at strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation sources. Could purchasing carbon offsets also move your fleet in the direction of carbon neutrality?

Strategy #2: Buy Carbon Offsets

The purchase of carbon offsets is an indirect way of reducing an organization’s carbon footprint. Unlike a reduction in energy use, carbon offsets are projects that result in a net reduction of atmospheric carbon. This can be an economical option, but it has potential pitfalls that organizations should be aware of.

  • Carbon offsets in the mirror can be more expensive than they appear. You have to account not only for the cost of the offset itself but for the cost of fraud prevention. Many organizations have purchased what they thought was a valid carbon offset project, like credits for planting trees in the Amazon or scavenging methane at a landfill—and it may, in fact, be a legitimate carbon sink—only to discover that the project was not offsetting quite as much carbon as it claimed or that it had sold its credits more than once.
  • Carbon offsets just keep costing. If you’re buying carbon offsets, it’s probably not a one-time purchase. It’s probably more akin to a subscription—you’ll renew your offsets annually, matching them to your emissions.
  • Carbon offsets won’t get you where you’re going. Carbon offsets may reduce your carbon footprint, but they don’t actually reduce your emissions. If your organization’s goal is carbon neutrality, the long-term method for achieving it should rely more on emissions reductions than on offsets. Think offsets like you’d think of any other temporary solution to a problem—it’s the strategy that can get you to carbon neutrality in the short term, while you work on implementing long-term solutions for reducing overall emissions. Some organizations have accounted for this in their planning by budgeting to purchase offsets at a declining rate that is coordinated with their emissions reduction progress.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at a strategy that won’t get you to carbon neutrality tomorrow, but that could be your best long-term solution: transitioning to a fleet powered by 100% renewable energy.