This is my first post in this forum about a topic that I have been thinking about for quiet some time. And recently, when I increased my monthly donations, I again realised that there might be an imbalance with Co2 compensation / offset models and maybe a solution?  

I offset my yearly Co2 consumption. Fortunately, it is rather easy today to find out how much to offset with calculators from the UN[1] or the German Federal Environment Agency[2]. On average, each German is responsible for emitting 10.35t of Co2 each year[3]. Even though I am vegetarian, not flying, living in a small flat, heating electricity from an eco-friendly supplier, my emissions are still round about 7t. Our planet could bear below 1t per person globally.[4] My personal share of the public infrastructure in Germany is already 1.19t - so it is impossible to achieve a personal Co2 neutrality when living in Germany. 

Ok - so I am offsetting. However, I found it challenging to determine how much (in Euro) I should offset. The different calculations vary in their €/t assumptions. When following the data from the most effective organisations[5] I could offset everything for just a few Euros.

But also larger professional offsetting initiatives are offering a ton for ~25€ depending on the project's location[6]. This results in a compensation payment of ca. 180€ for me in order to compensate the whole year's emissions! With a straightforward calculation Luke is coming to a value of 35$ which also seems reasonable. 

So far so good. I was satisfied with that and somehow was relieved that I could give something back at least. 

But then I increased my donation to 10% of my income in January this year. And now here is the point. People in the EA community who earn German average income of 51.000€ (pre tax) would donate 5100€ per year. When I realised that I save more than one life per year[7] I felt confirmed that it is the right decision. 

But what does that mean for my Co2 offsetting? What does that mean for the offsetting of so many people? When the most effective charities can compensate 1 ton of Co2 with 1€, followers of EA could offset their year's Co2 impact for 10€. When donating thousands of Euros per year it makes the Co2 offset looking so tiny. Is it still worth it then? 

Of course it is great to know your Co2 footprint. And of course I do not want to say, that EA people shouldn't offset. Maybe...

... maybe it is worth to not use the most effective value for offsetting even though we beliefe in EA (so the 1€ per ton)? The German Federal Environment Agency states that the actual climate cost per ton Co2 is 237€ - and, if the welfare losses of current and future generations caused by climate change are equalized the cost per ton Co2 would be 809€.[8]

... or is it totally valid to just compensate 10€ because we are follower of EA and therefore "for us" the cost per ton is less?

I wonder if we are caring less about our emissions when we know that offsetting costs just a few euros. Imagine a flight to Australia being just a few euros more expensive or several hundred. 

I decided to take the 25€ per ton but donate it to an effective organisation. Isn't that a win-win? I am looking forward to your thoughts. 


  1. ^
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    German Federal Environment Agency, 

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    e.g.  which is the "German GiveWell"

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    GiveWell's TOP charities

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My impression is that most CO2 offsets are bogus, basically the climate change version of “just 25 cents will help save a child’s life”. If you subject them to a GiveWell style analysis, I would guess most of these offset programs fall apart, or at least deliver way less than the promised counterfactual impact.

Also logically I think it would make sense to lump offsets in with other charitable giving and subject them to the same scrutiny, and when you do that it just doesn’t make sense to buy offsets. Even within the climate cause area, I really doubt that buying offsets would be cost effective, and I also doubt that climate is the most cost effective cause area right now.

Hi Ian, thanks for your thoughts. I think we are on the same page. My proposal is to NOT buy the normal offsets but just calculate the amount of money you would have to spend for the cost inefficient offsets (or using even the 237€ per ton above) and use this money for cost effective donations for GiveWell / effectiv-spenden recommended charities. 

Hey there & thanks for asking a great question. I don’t have any particularly fresh insights, but I wanted to join in & note that I went through the same thing a couple years ago, and concluded that I should donate a little bit each year offset my emissions.

I generally agree with the calculations leading to the $35 figure above; it does genuinely seem like the Clean Air Task Force (CATF) and Coalition for Rainforest Nations (CfRN) are extremely effective per dollar. In some sense, no matter who you offset with, you’re always offsetting in expectation—if you’re worried about risk, you should offset at the lower credible bound for effectiveness. But to address your points above, these organisations can only absorb so much funding. The German government couldn’t donate billions of euros a year in a cost-effective way—but you can donate a hundred. So I think it’s not unreasonable for governments to have higher estimates of the long-term per-capita burden of carbon emissions, at the same time as it being possible for your donation to be orders of magnitude cheaper. (In an EA context, compare saving a life via GiveWell against a government saving thousands of lives by building a hospital).

All of this generally assumes offsetting is possible. CO2 emissions are easier, you can plant vegetation which will directly absorb some amount of carbon over its lifecycle. In the CfRN’s case, they save vegetation which preserves its future absorption ability. Other greenhouse cases such as nitrogen have a trickier theory of change; it mostly seems like it’s best to prevent future emissions and wait for the existing gases to decay. And that’s where the CATF come in.

I think I have a bit more of a deontological streak than other EAs, so for me it feels important than I’m not doing any harm myself. I can’t easily make an argument that would suggest a pure utilitarian should donate that ~$35 to carbon offsetting over saving lives. But for me it was cheap enough (the price of a nice dinner, say) that any hand-wringing over it would be a waste of time.

Hi Huw and thanks for sharing your approach towards offsetting. 

I am wondering if these 35$ are giving us the impression that being the reason for co2 emissions is ok, as it is so cheap to offset. Shouldn't we, as people believing in EA, still use higher pricec per ton Co2 to be reminded, that the climate cost per ton are higher currently, and even if we chose to take an effective organisation to offset, it doesn't mean that we can emmit Co2 without caring?

The point is, emmiting (and therefor offsetting) shouldn't be "cheap enough", should it? Shouldn't we really feel our emmissions (on our bank balance) in order to caring / start caring?

Two points there:

  1. It is $35. You can spend $35 and offset a year's worth of carbon emissions. It is not the case that 'the climate cost per ton is higher currently'.
  2. Because it's so cheap, you can offset CO2 without caring.

If you want to put a mental block on not emitting, you're welcome to do so, but it would be incorrect to deliberately pay more than the actual cost of offsetting those emissions. (This is what I personally do; I try to avoid emitting because I think it's generally morally good to not be excessively wasteful, but I am under no illusions that it wouldn't be very cheap for me to offset it). Frankly, at the end of the day, the biggest emitters in rich countries are industrial organisations and no amount of personal cutting-back is really going to prevent them from changing their behaviour anyway.

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