Donovan Woollard is the Director of Business Development for Offsetters Climate Neutral Society. He spoke over the phone with Am Johal.

Am Johal: What is Offsetters and how can buying carbon offsets for airplane travel lower carbon emissions?

Donovan Woollard: Offsetters Climate Neutral Society is one of Canada’s main providers of carbon offsets. We help individuals and companies to reduce the climate impact of their lifestyle, travel, and productive activities. Many activities âe” from driving to manufacturing to building homes to turning on the lights to grocery shopping âe” generate greenhouse gas emissions. Offsetters’ role is to help our clients and partners to understand the impact that this has on the climate, to reduce their direct impact, and to purchase carbon offsets for the emissions that they cannot readily avoid.

We’ve worked with organizations such as Harbour Air, Vancouver Film Studios, and Tourism BC to become fully carbon neutral, and a host of other partners such as WestJet, Air France, and the Bare Naked Ladies to make elements of their operation more climate friendly.

What is your definition of carbon offsets?

A carbon offset occurs when one emits greenhouse gas in one place and invests in a project to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or soak up atmospheric carbon in another place. As long as the project is real, reduces net emissions to at least zero, and would not have taken place otherwise, the project is an offset.

There are essentially two approaches to offsetting. On the one hand you can put money into a project that will take carbon dioxide out of the air. Planting trees is a common example of this approach. The other approach is to invest in energy projects that prevent carbon dioxide emissions from taking place in the first place.

The latter approach is the one taken by Offsetters. We believe that your carbon offset purchase should do more than just address your direct emissions. It should also play a role in shifting our buildings, infrastructure, and energy systems to low carbon alternatives, to get us out of the climate crisis we’ve created.

The crucial element of carbon offsetting is “additionality,” meaning that the funds are going into projects which would not have taken place otherwise. If our client flies from Toronto to Vancouver, let’s say, and gives us $26 because they were responsible for emitting 1.3 tonnes of greenhouse gas, we need to make sure that there is an additional climate benefit from this contribution. If we just put that money into a project that would have taken place anyway, our client has just wasted $26, even if that project is generally good for the climate.

A common misconception about carbon credits is that they are investments in companies or research and development. We invest in applications of technology in specific projects. We don’t invest in companies and make a bunch of money down the road. Instead, we identify projects where a subsidy and technological expertise can encourage, for example, a community centre to upgrade its heat source from a conventional natural gas or oil system to a geothermal system instead. The difference between the new lower level of emissions relative to the emissions that would be generated by the conventional system is the carbon credits that we make available to our clients.

Sustainability is a fashionable word these days and is potentially lucrative in the market place. There’s a number of private companies and others who engage in carbon offsetting or sustainability consulting. How can the public discern between those who are doing good work and those who aren’t?

In addition to the non-profit and for profit organizations involved in offsetting, the public should dig in deeper to see what values underlie the product itself that is being sold. Sustainability in general and climate change in particular are a growing element of the economy and in some cases there aren’t yet regulations to govern it. There are a number of well-known stories of folks profiteering on peoples’ good intentions and products that do not live up to their “green” billing.

The voluntary carbon market is not immune to this either. Thankfully, this sector is growing up very quickly and developing an array of standards and protocols similar to those that govern other sustainability mechanisms.

In many cases, whether you’re shopping for tomatoes or carbon offsets, you need to educate yourself about what they’re looking for. Just as there is organic labeling to help us select lower impact tomatoes and Forest Stewardship Council certification to help us ensure that our wood products are sustainably harvested, there are voluntary quality standards developing in the offsetting market as well.

In short, what buyers of carbon offsets should look for is confirmation that the credits on offer have been third party verified (ie. audited) as generating real, additional, and permanent âe” the carbon isn’t temporarily stored in trees or soil for example âe” emissions reductions.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been criticized for not going far enough in their findings on climate change. There are rising economies in China and India that are increasing their carbon output. Does this really make a difference?

The IPCC is mostly a group of scientists studying climate change rather than policy makers directly, but it’s certainly true that recent studies have begun to suggest that the climate is changing even faster than the “worst case” scenarios presented by IPCC reports.

I would say the primary benefit of carbon offsetting is that it’s one part of the solution âe” it’s not going to single-handedly address these issues of climate change which are fundamentally large, but it certainly has a role to play. First, offsets âe” combined with steps to directly reduce one’s emissions âe” help individuals and companies to mitigate the climate impact of their own emissions. If you buy high quality offsets you will get verification that your money goes in to a project that would not otherwise happen and which results in additional climate benefit.

Second, offsetting allows funds to go to where the climate benefit is greatest. We cannot all afford a high energy efficient home or a hybrid vehicle (which only shaves about a quarter off the operating emissions of a vehicle in the first place) but by contributing to organizations like Offsetters you can promote energy efficiency projects in other buildings for a fraction of the cost.

Our investment in technology installations has a catalytic affect on the next generation of technology. For example, while we currently invest in geothermal heating installations in affordable housing and community facilities, we hope that in the near future this technology will be commonplace instead of the natural gas, electric, or oil systems that are the norm today.

When this happens, geothermal installations in these building types aren’t offsets anymore, and weâe(TM)ll move into other types of projects.

Anything else you wanted to add?

What we are doing is moving an economy towards a more sustainable direction by investing in infrastructure so it will have less intensive carbon usage. We also focus mostly on those projects that have a strong social and local environmental benefit, as it doesn’t make sense to trade off climate benefit against social/environmental detriment.

Lots of our projects provide high quality, affordable energy systems for economically marginalized groups, or provide high quality wood stoves in Latin America, reducing time spent on fuel wood collection and dramatically improving indoor air quality.

Am Johal

Am Johal

Am Johal is an independent Vancouver writer whose work has appeared in Seven Oaks Magazine, ZNet, Georgia Straight, Electronic Intifada, Arena Magazine, Inter Press Service,,