Are you one of the millions of people out there that doesn't understand what carbon offsets are or how they work or how you might go about incorporating them into your life? You are not alone. I don't profess to be an expert, but I can certainly share some information and resources with you to get you started.
I guess it is obvious to most that a carbon offset is something that offsets carbon emissions. I believe, and please correct me if I am wrong, that on a macroeconomic scale these are known as carbon credits. It is not immediately apparent to me whether there is really any difference between the carbon offsets and carbon credits, as they are each issued at the industry level. The ability of countries to trade carbon allowances falls under the "cap and trade" scheme under the Kyoto Protocol.
You may be asking yourself why an individual would care about something like his or own personal carbon emissions, when countries are themselves are presumably addressing the issue. Well, the Kyoto Protocol is not perfect, and certain countries, such as the US, did not even sign on to it. Apparently the US's carbon emissions have risen approximately 18% between 1990 and 2005. Other countries, such as Canada, have signed on to the Protocol, but have done a terrible job of reducing their emissions in accordance with targets (Canada's target was a 6% reduction but instead we have had an increase of 24% between the base year and 2007). It is pretty sad when we're being beaten by a country that isn't even a signatory to the Protocol.
So Kyoto isn't working for us. In some countries it is, but in the West it doesn't seem to be. Since our government, as with many initiatives that have to do with the environment, does not seem capable of dealing with this matter, it falls on the shoulders of individuals, corporations and communities that are motivated to do so, to pick up the slack.
In my opinion, and this is just my personal opinion, the two primary activities where I will and do consider buying carbon offsets is when I travel by airplane, and periodically to offset my vehicle emissions. With respect to the latter point, probably the most effective was to do this is to just keep track on the first of each month of your odometer, and when you have driven a sufficient amount to justify purchasing some offsets, then buy them. Alternatively, you could buy some at regular intervals. You could look at how many miles you've put on your car today (if you bought it new, or even if you didn't) and buy the offsets required to bring it down to zero.
If you are interested in purchasing carbon offsets, keep in mind that although many companies sell carbon offsets, it is important that the project that you are supporting is causing a carbon reduction in addition to any reduction that would have happened otherwise (this is referred to as "additionality"). Also, before you buy any offsets, question whether the project has secondary impacts or negative social impacts (such as many hydroelectric dam projects). If you would like to see the Government of Canada's planned offset program summary, which provides more information about what we, as individuals, should look for when purchasing offsets, click here.
Before you purchase offsets, you must first calculate your carbon emissions. If you are taking a flight, here is the carbon neutral flight calculator, and if you want to offset your driving, here is the link. Once you know how many units you will need to purchase, you can go to this website and go through a list of organizations providing offsets, choose one, and buy your offsets. If you would like more information on carbon offsets, what to look for in a program, and a list of (Canadian) vendors of offsets and a comparative look at how they are rated, here is a report published by the David Suzuki Foundation and the Pembina Institute called Purchasing Carbon Offsets. Some organizations that did not perform well have been very critical of the methodology used in the ratings of the various organizations (see the table on p. 50 to see who was rated and how they scored) in that report. At the very least the rest of the content of the report is useful to gain a fuller understanding of offsets.
I cannot finish this entry without mentioning that some people are very critical of carbon offset programs, and not just because of the problems with the projects that I have already mentioned above. Some people think that offsets encourage people to disregard and fail to question the activities that they engage in that produce the carbon emissions in the first place. They continue their original harmful behaviour and then feel all warm and fuzzy inside when they purchase their offsets because they are "doing something good for the environment". While I do not agree that by neutralizing your impact you are necessarily entitled to feel morally superior, it is still a step in the right direction. If people regularly start purchasing offsets, they will start to build their cost into the price of the emitting behaviour and potentially curtail that behaviour in the long run. The same goes for industries. Whether the carbon emissions are neutralized or prevented, in my opinion it is still better than continuing to emit without consideration of the consequences.