Carbon offsets are a way to reduce your environmental impact and carbon footprint by purchasing what is essentially a donation for a specific purpose -- to offset the impact from the greenhouse gases you produce every day. Because carbon dioxide is measured in metric tons, one carbon offset is representative of one metric ton of greenhouse gases. These offsets are a great way to encourage "green" living and sustainability, and emphasize the fact that while every individual is responsible for climate change, every individual can make a difference.
Your carbon footprint is the amount of greenhouse gases you produce every day. These might come from an individual, a family, a business, even a nation. The greenhouse gases might come from driving a vehicle, running the heat in your home, flying on a plane, using electricity and water -- nearly every activity produces some form of greenhouse gas, whether directly or indirectly. There are carbon calculators online to help you figure out an approximation of how much greenhouse emissions you create every day, to give you an idea of where you can reduce and how much effect carbon offsets would have.
The amount of carbon offsets you choose to purchase is entirely up to you. Some people purchase them before going on a long trip, especially if the trip will include air travel, to offset the ecological footprint of the trip. Others purchase them for more day-to-day living; for example, if your commute stays roughly the same and you know the mileage rating on your vehicle, you can figure out the carbon footprint of your vehicle for the year and purchase a carbon offset for the whole year all at once. Businesses who are restricted in the amount of greenhouse gases they can produce might also purchase carbon offsets.
Once you've donated your money, you might wonder how it actually reduces greenhouse emissions. Most carbon offsets purchased go toward developing sustainable energy sources. This might mean wind farms, solar energy, and hydroelectric power. Some companies might plant trees, reduce pollutants, and remove methane gases from landfills. These are not all of the potential uses for carbon offsets, but these are the primary ones. Not all carbon offsets reduce pollution immediately, in the short term; some are only effective in the long term, but are still important.
Before you purchase a carbon offset, ensure that the program is certified by one of the industry's regulators, who make sure the money is used for what it is intended. Some of these include the Chicago Climate Exchange, Environmental Resources Trust and Gold Standard, to name a few. If you are concerned, do some extra research on the company providing the offset beforehand. Carbon offsets generally cost between $1 US Dollar (USD) and $30 USD for one metric ton of carbon, making them a relatively inexpensive, cost-effective and easy way to make a big environmental impact.