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I was thinking about buying carbon offsets, but when I started looking into what kind of projects would be funded, I noticed that all the projects listed had already been completed. This seems to be the case for several companies selling carbon offsets, including Less.ca and Offsetters.ca.

What's the point of buying carbon offsets for completed projects? If the project is already completed, then it must already providing a benefit (reduced emissions). If I was paying for carbon offsets, I would expect that money to be used for new projects that provide an additional reduction of carbon emissions.

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  • Are the carbon offsets a financing mechanism? i.e. the project is built with a bank loan, then the offset payments are used to pay off the loan?
    – LShaver
    Aug 21 at 14:08
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The simple answer is that the "completed" project is ongoing. Much as a motorway doesn't stop emitting once it's completed, a landfill gas capture system does not stop reducing emissions once construction is complete, and a forest doesn't stop absorbing carbon once it's planted.

But the exact answer is generally in the fine print. Often those projects are front-loaded, there's an estimate made of how much carbon will be avoided/absorbed during the entrie working life of the project and those negative emissions are sold on day one, then the project is complete. That's where a lot of the scams come from - the originators have essentially sold promises, and once they're paid they lose interest. So you need to do quite specific research to find out the exact details for the scheme/scam you're buying into.

There are other traps, forsts can burn, machinery can irrecoverably break down, wars can break out. In those cases even the best intentions can fail, and often the insurance payout only covers the money cost, there's no provision for "net zero emissions replacement" to allow the original abatement to take place. The PV system on my roof, to use a trivial example, was funded by selling the "expected lifetime output" but it was impossible to buy insurance that did not also include selling the lifetime output of the replacement system (viz, it covered the cost of a new, equivalent system but not buying back the lost non-emissions of the system it replaced).

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Carbon offsets for completed projects seem like a major con but then again carbon offsets are a major con anyway.

If you buy something that has been already completed, remember to ensure you will be the new owner of the thing that was completed.

Examples:

  1. A car maker completes building an electric car. You can buy it.
  2. A heat pump company completes construction of a geothermal heat pump. You can buy it.
  3. A publicly listed company completes a wind farm (or a solar farm or a utility-scale storage battery or a hydrogen electrolysis plant or ...). You can buy shares of this company.
  4. A landowner reforests some land. You can buy this land and ensure the forest will be from this moment to eternity be used in sustainable forestry as the new landowner.
  5. A bicycle manufacturer completes building an electric bicycle. You can buy it and start riding it instead of driving a gas-guzzling car.
  6. A construction company builds an energy-efficient house entirely made from wood and heated by a geothermal heat pump. You can buy the house.
  7. A farmer grows some peas using sustainable farming practices. You can buy the peas and eat some pea soup.

If you buy "carbon offsets", you'll soon find you are very poor, and the seller of the "carbon offsets" will be very rich. There's nothing you gain, nothing you own after buying these offsets.

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The problem with the carbon market is also the benefit

There is no necessary connection between the benefit (which is reduced CO2) and the cost (which is money). The output of a project might be a CO2 reduction but this is not connected to the money-based economy

The CO2 offsets market is a way of making this connection so that reduced CO2 has some kind of value

If the product you are buying into has already made a CO2 reduction but has not sold the offsets and you buy them then you are aiding the CO2 reduction project in the same way as if you had bought them before the reduction was made

As the statistics and the governance on this type of market is not well developed then there must be a large measure of trust in how the transaction is carried out

There are efforts to make these types of transactions more transparent ( see https://www.sylvera.com/ )

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