This is a cross-post from my blog. I've seen analysis like this previously on the forum, but nothing recently, so I thought it might be useful to share one up-to-date practical exploration of climate offset donations.

I want to start donating annually to offset my carbon footprint. I don’t really think of this as a charitable cost - instead it’s internalizing my externalities.

This is the first time I am systematically deciding to make an annual donation - I wanted to walk through my thinking in case it’s useful for anyone else! This post also serves as pro-Effective Altruism propaganda.

  • How much carbon do I need to offset?
    • The average American seems to emit about 15-20T of CO2 per year (source, source, source). I’ll assume 20T.
    • But I travel a lot. A round-trip flight from London to New York emits ~1T of CO2. This year I took 5 international flights - most had multiple legs, so I’ll assume I emitted 15T more than the average American.
    • So let’s say I have to offset 35T of CO2 each year.
  • Where should I donate?
  • How much should I donate?
    • I’ll use the top recommended climate charity from Vox’s Future Perfect as a benchmark. As of December 2023, this is the Clean Air Task Force
    • Founder’s Pledge estimates that a donation to CATF can avert 1T of CO2 emissions for $0.1-$1
    • So that would put the amount I have to donate to offset all my emissions at $3.50-$35 per year
    • I’ll be on the safe side and assume I should donate $35

Conclusion: I just donated $35 to the Climate Fund from Founder’s Pledge to offset my yearly carbon footprint. I intend to make this donation annually going forward, and encourage you to as well!

Effective Altruism has been under some heat lately - with the collapse of FTX, and the drama around the OpenAI board ousting Sam Altman.

EA is both a philosophy and a community. I think the above exercise illustrates why both are really good, despite recent drama.

The philosophy of Effective Altruism gave me the intellectual motivation to donate in the first place. And it informs my decision about where to donate: I should not just donate to what feels the best - I should donate where my dollar will have the highest impact in terms of tons of CO2-eq averted.

The community of EA has created institutions (in this case Vox’s Future Perfect, and Founder’s Pledge) that help me quickly[1] identify a good donation opportunity, and direct my funds effectively. Also, a post on the the EA Forum provided extra social motivation to make this donation

Is this system perfect? No. Perhaps I could have spent more time finding a better charity to donate to. Perhaps I should be doing more in my lifestyle or in political activism to be addressing the problem of climate change.

But I think my actions here are a lot better than they would be if Effective Altruism did not exist[2]. So overall I remain proud of Effective Altruism - both the philosophy and the community.

 

  1. ^

    It only took 1 hour to do the research and decide to donate!

  2. ^

    For what it’s worth, the philosophy and community of EA were also key motivators in my decision to become vegetarian

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This is a really good idea, and one I will incorporate into my own life. Not trying to start anything controversial, but I wonder how much would be fair for me to donate as a vegan who rarely travels by air, or are you recommending $35 as a standard amount for everyone?

are you recommending $35 as a standard amount for everyone?

Not OP, but I would guess OP would recommend to pay only proportional to your estimated CO2 footprint. If you rarely travel, it will be much less than $35 (iirc veganism has a much smaller impact on CO2 than intercontinental flights).

Thanks so much for your input! Also do you know of any scientifically source that measures the impact of various activities (meat eating, travel, etc.) on emissions? It’s hard to find objective information because unfortunately the topic of climate change has become politicized.

There are calculators out there, like this simple one from the UN for example: https://offset.climateneutralnow.org/footprintcalc 
(includes lifestyle factors like meat as well as travel)

That's awesome to hear - it was worth the effort of me writing it up then!

Agreed with harfe's comment - if your goal is just to offset your own emissions then you would probably want to donate a bit less. If you don't fly more than the average American, then probably $20. Veganism might push the number down a little bit too, but like harfe said, the intercontinental flights are a bigger factor.

Of course I wouldn't discourage anyone from donating above and beyond the amount needed to offset their own emissions!

Thanks so much. I didn’t get a notification for harfe’s post, but I’ll have to read it as well. Thank you both for your response to my question, it’s a big help!

Thanks; this was helpful. Did the same thing and sent the post to my family, too.

I'm so glad to hear it

Founders Pledge saying they can offset a ton of CO2 for $0.1-1 is like a malaria net charity saying they can save a life for $5.

Both are off by at least an order of magnitude. You should expect to spend at least $100/ton for robust, verifiable offsets. That brings your offset cost to $3,500 not $35.

Thanks - maybe I'm giving them too much trust.

In their impact report they say "We’ve granted out $14.89m in total and we estimate that it will avert 102m tonnes in CO2-equivalent emissions."

I would not give too much credence to that from a non-EA aligned org, but I've been giving them decent credence with regards to counterfactual impact reporting since they're EA aligned.

You're saying I should treat their reports less like givewell reports, and more like I would treat a random non EA charity. Any particular arguments for why? Or is it just that you wouldn't take the prior of assuming that they are at the evaluation quality of givewell? (Or maybe you don't trust givewell on this either)

Thanks, Luke!

Uncertainty
As we frequently point out, one should take the estimates with a grain of salt and consider the reported uncertainty (e.g. the old estimate had something like 0.1 USD/tCO2e to 10 USD/tCO2e) and, IIRC, the impact report also reports that these estimates are extremely uncertain and reports wide ranges.

As we discussed in our recent methodology-focused update, we think large uncertainty is unavoidable when operating in climate as a global decadal challenge with the most effective interventions inherently non-RCT-able (FWIW, I would think similarly about Global Health and Development, which is why I think the certainty focus of (historical) GiveWell can be harmful when the goal is to risk-neutrally identify the best interventions), so our main focus is on getting the relative comparisons right which is what is decision-relevant.

Offsets provide no information with regards to the cost-effectiveness of risk-neutral philanthropy
That said, using offsets to make the case that our estimates must be overly optimistic, seems mistaken.

Offsets solve a different problem, high certainty (uncertainty-avoidant) emissions reductions from direct action.  This cannot be very cheap. 

It is very plausible that risk-neutrality and leveraging mechanisms such as advocacy, trajectory changes, and others provides a large multiplier upon offsets at the cost of more uncertainty (though that uncertainty cuts both ways, uncertain things can also turn out to be even better than their expected value suggests). FWIW, Giving Green who used to be critical of this claim has also converged onto this position, now emphasizing philanthropic bets over offsets quite explicitly and much more confidently than they used to.

Just as OP thinks that their risk-neutral global health and development works dominates GiveWell charities despite being more uncertain about their own work, it is entirely plausible that credible offsets cost > USD 100t/CO2e while good philanthropic opportunities dominate this by ~100x or more. In other words, being uncertainty-avoidant has real costs in terms of expected impact, so offsets do not provide a credible benchmark from which to infer whether estimates on risk-neutral philanthropy are off.

Should we encourage offsetting?
I should also note that I am quite critical of offsetting as a frame, one needs to be quite careful to not create / amplify a frame of very limited moral ambition (I think you did a good job in your post, though it is still further in terms of promoting offsetting than I'd go). I generally try to frame donating to climate charities as a form of political action rather than offsetting.

 
 

GiveWell has dozens of researchers putting tens of thousands of hours of work into coming up with better models and variable estimates. Their most critical inputs are largely determined by RCTs, and they are constantly working to get better data. A lot of their uncertainty comes from differences in moral weights in saving vs. improving lives.

Founders Pledge makes models using monte carlo simulations on complex theory of change models where the variables ranges are made up because they are largely unknowable. It's mostly Johannes, with a few assistant researchers, putting in a few hundreds of hours into model choice and parameter selection - with many more hours spent on writing and coding for their monte carlo analysis (which Givewell doesn't have to do, because they've got much simpler impact models in spreadsheets). FP has previously made 1/mtCO2e cost-effectiveness claims based on models like this, which was amplified in MacAskill's WWOTF. This model is wildly optimistic. FP now disowns that particularly model, but won't take it down or publicly list it as a mistake. They no longer publish their particular intervention CEAs publicly, though they may resume soon. My biggest criticism is that when making these complex theory-of-change models, the structure of model often matters more than than the variable inputs. While FP tries to pick "conservative" variable value assumptions (they rarely are), the model structure is wildly optimistic for their chosen interventions (generally technology innovation policy). For model feedback, FP doesn't have a good culture or process in place that deals with criticism well, a complaint that I've heard from several in the EA climate space. I think FP's uncertainty work has promise as a tool, but I think the recommendations they come up with are largely wrong given their chosen model structure and inputs.

GiveWell's recommendations in the health space are of vastly higher quality and certainty than FP's in the climate space.

Thank you for sharing and hopefully encouraging others to considering offsetting.

I have taken a subscription with Carbon Neutral Britain which is at just under £7/$9 per month which works great for me because it minimizes the cognitive cost but makes it a more regular part of my life: https://carbonneutralbritain.org/pages/become-carbon-neutral

That said the Vox list is great and I'll be looking into their recommendations as well.

This seems reasonable, but I'm always nervous about any program that is using carbon offsets, because there are significant financial incentives to game the system and take credit for reductions, instead of just reducing emissions. It's better than doing nothing, but if you're interested, there's an easy way to set up recurring monthly donations to the fund Vox recommended, here: https://www.givingwhatwecan.org/en-US/charities/founders-pledge-climate-change-fund

Thanks for posting. 

I've donated $20 USD for the year based on your calcs.

Now I'm trying to offset my contributions to farmed animal suffering for the year. I'm starting with the number of farmed animals in Canada, where I live, but am not sure where to go next.

Any tips for approximately offset-able measures of "How much did I contribute to farmed animal suffering this year?" would be appreciated. Will update if I think of anything.

I have actually been thinking of creating a tool to help people do exactly what you are trying to do! I will DM you after I make my first version to get your input

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