Onset and Get On Board for a More Sustainable Future

An inside look at how Earth Deeds founder and CEO Daniel Greenberg developed the model of carbon onsetting

Daniel Greenberg’s ultimate goal for Earth Deeds, the online carbon onsetting venture he began five years ago, is that one day it becomes redundant.

Greenberg wants the concept of carbon onsetting to become mainstream enough that valuing the social costs of carbon emissions and calculating them into everyday costs and systems will be commonplace, and a platform like Earth Deeds, which directs funds matching the social cost of carbon emissions to organizations working for local sustainable solutions, will no longer be as unique and innovative – not to mention necessary – as it is now. SERES has now begun a carbon onsetting initiative with Earth Deeds, and we sat down with Daniel to learn more about how he began to develop the idea of carbon onsetting, and how we all can be activated and involved in creating a more sustainable planet.

The Road to Onsetting

Daniel Greenberg, Founder and CEO of the carbon onsetting venture Earth Deeds. “I think what we’re trying to do with Earth Deeds is to tell a different story. That actually, fundamentally, we are connected,” Greenberg says. [Photo via Earth Deeds]

As an undergrad at Cornell University in the 1980s, Greenberg studied electrical engineering and dreamed of working with artificial intelligence on what he thought would be the “cutting edge of society.” That is, until his sophomore year, when time spent teaching about computers in an afterschool program made Greenberg realize that he “liked kids more than computers,” he says with a laugh.

That realization launched Greenberg on the path to a major in psychological and then a doctorate in child and school psychology.  After spending two years doing a thesis on child development in intentional communities, Greenberg hopped into a van with his then partner and now wife Monique, and traveled to between 30 and 40 communes across North America.

While doing an internship in Findhorn, an intentional community in Scotland, Greenberg witnessed the profound impact living in the community and learning about sustainable lifestyles had on a group of college students that visited. Greenberg realized his new goal and passion was to develop study abroad programs in sustainable communities in order to “build this bridge, so that more young adults, more future leaders can have this experience of really living in community.”

He started the organization Living Routes in 1999 and in partnership with the University of Massachusetts Amherst facilitated study abroad experiences for over 1500 college students in ecovillages around the world before it ended in 2014.

Students were transformed, knowledge was exchanged, connections were made, relationships built. But there was an “inherent dilemma” within the programs’ operations, Greenberg realized.

“Here we are, an organization all about sustainability, taking students to these communities that were trying to model sustainable life choices, and yet what were we doing? We were flying people all over the world, which was emitting tons of carbon dioxide, which was contributing to the greenhouse effect of creating climate change and global warming. And so that never felt good. I did feel that it was worth it because it was really changing lives, but I also felt that it was really important to measure and acknowledge these unavailable environmental impacts from our travel,” says Greenberg.

So he set up a system where students calculated the carbon emissions from their flights and, based on these figures, Living Routes set aside a fund for each program to account for these emissions. The question then became apparent: What do with all of the money?

Onsetting vs. Offsetting: What’s the Difference?

Greenberg developed onsetting as an alternative to carbon offsetting for individuals and organizations who want to practice carbon consciousness. [Photo, SERES]

”The easiest solution” for Greenberg and Living Routes would have been to give the money to one of at least several dozen major carbon offsetting companies, which invest designated funds in projects – planting trees, investing in renewable energy, etc. – to directly reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that goes into the atmosphere.

“To offsetting’s credit, they have raised a lot of people’s consciousness about their impacts, and transferred over 3 billion dollars in the last decade or so to a lot of good projects,” Greenberg says.

However, there are “a lot of challenges” implicit in the offsetting process that compelled Greenberg to search for a better use of the carbon emissions funds at Living Routes.

“One of the big problems in offsetting is that it’s just inefficient,” he explains.

To sell carbon “credits,” as they’re called in the voluntary carbon market, carbon offsetting companies have to employ and involve a lot of people in the process to measure the carbon mitigation of the projects who receive funds. The cost of those employees and other consultants involved in the process takes a chunk out of the money originally dedicated for carbon mitigation, meaning that sometimes as little as 30 cents on the dollar actually makes it to the project itself.

Experts estimate that only 30 cents for every dollar given to carbon offsetting ventures makes it to the designated projects. [Photo, SERES]

“Another big issue is what’s called additionality, and this is the idea that offsetting has to have happened because of your money,” Greenberg says, explaining that in the most basic terms, additionality means that carbon offsetting companies have to find out whether or not money given by someone to say, have more trees planted, is actually the reason why those trees are being planted. According to Greenberg, it’s estimated that 70% of the projects would have happened anyway, whether or not those funds were contributed. 

The solution, Greenberg and his Living Routes co-workers discovered, was literally right in front of them. They decided to give the money to the projects and ecovillages they were already working with. Even though it was impossible to measure an exact quantity of carbon emissions they were mitigating, the projects were actively working to cultivate resilience and sustainability for the future of the planet.

“Hurry, Hurry, and Save the Environment” is the translation of this sign, painted by a SERES youth leader in El Salvador. Greenberg says it’s important to focus on not just reduction of carbon emissions, but also resilience. For SERES youth and their communities, the effects of climate change are urgent. [Photo, SERES].

In developing and implementing this idea of “onsetting,” Greenberg began to see the very concept of carbon neutrality as the issue at the core of offsetting.

Because of “the idea that we can somehow be neutral,” Greenberg says, offsetting is prone to inefficiency because of the need to measure the amount of emissions mitigated for each dollar and each act of a particular project, along with issues of additionality – all of which siphons off funds before they can reach their target.

“We absolutely need to reduce carbon emissions. I mean no one questions that, right? We drastically need to reduce carbon emissions on this planet. But the thing with carbon neutrality is that it gives the illusion that that’s all we need to do. Like if somehow we could wave a wand and somehow all we have to do is all be carbon neutral then the problem is solved,” Greenberg says, adding, “But more than that, it really constrains how we think about the issue, how we think about climate change.”

In his view, addressing climate change solely through how much CO2 is emitted and how much is reduced is focusing on an essential part of climate action, but by no means the only one.

“We have to create local and resilient food systems. We have to protect biodiversity and wildlife, we have to fight for climate justice, [and] all these people that are unjustly impacted by global warming. We have to deconstruct and replace all of these systems, political systems and economic systems that got us into this situation in the first place,” Greenberg says.

“None of that can you just do through the voluntary carbon market.”

Onsetting for the Future, and the Future of Onsetting

With Earth Deeds, which Greenberg founded in 2012 to provide a platform and consulting and educational materials for carbon onsetting, the goal is “reducing emissions, but with systemic thinking.”

“The idea is let’s account for our unavoidable emissions, by supporting sustainability and resiliency in communities that matter to us. Let’s actually ask that question: What do I think is the best use of $100 or $1000 or whatever, to create a more sustainable future?” Greenberg says.

Other than a few Quaker communities who had developed an internal onsetting program, there weren’t many others doing anything like carbon onsetting when Greenberg began developing the model with Living Routes. Even now, Greenberg says, carbon onsetting is still fairly new.

“It’s a challenging concept too, because most people don’t understand or don’t like carbon [offsetting]. So we’re basically saying, hey we’ve got a better idea. But we’re talking to people who either don’t understand or don’t like the concept we’re trying to replace,” he says.

Greenberg has focused on sharing information about onsetting in academia, given his background and the access it provides to adequate matching markets for Earth Deeds. In general, it can be a tough sell because it is a voluntary choice and expense, but it is slowly gaining traction, especially with student and university groups and study abroad programs that provide a ready platform and audience for onsetting initiatives.

Earth Deeds has worked with several universities and study abroad programs, including the third party provider CIS Abroad. With CIS, Earth Deeds has facilitated onsetting for the carbon emissions of their international education programs, allowing students, staff, and other participants to calculate the social costs of their carbon emissions for the duration of the program, and then distribute those funds to over 14 different projects around the world.

“It’s great because we help them identify projects close to where the students are studying, so more often than not the programs decided to go out and see the place that they were supporting, and build a really nice connection there,” Greenberg says, with projects ranging from  ecovillages in Australia, to wildlife federations and microfinance projects for woman in Oaxaca, Meixco, among others.

“Sometimes it’s hard to distribute the money, because they think it’s spam,” Greenberg says, laughing. “And I have to convince them, like no no no, really, I really have money I’m trying to give you.”

Reduction AND Resilience

SERES programs strengthen regional resilience in Central America through youth leadership activation and sustainability education. [Photo, SERES]

For Greenberg and Earth Deeds, addressing climate change and its effects are not as simple as giving money. It’s a holistic problem that needs to be addressed holistically.

“I think most of us – most people don’t even think about their carbon emissions. We’ve gotten into the situation we’re in because we’ve effectively valued nature at zero. Right? We’ve essentially said it’s free, whether chopping down forests, breathing the air – you can do all that for free. But obviously, it isn’t free. Obviously there’s been a huge cost. Most of us don’t even still recognize that. Offsetting does a little bit, but it’s still kind of sweeping it under the rug. It’s like hey I’m going to give a little bit of money here and I’m not gonna think about it,” Greenberg says.

“Onsetting and Earth Deeds, we’re doing the opposite. We’re saying we want to make this as visible as possible and we want to make it as meaningful as possible, and to build those relationships, because building those relationships will create a greater sense of interconnectedness,” Greenberg says. 

“It’s not a question of that there won’t be impacts,” he adds. “It’s a question of how do we create as much resilience.”

Citing the work of environmental activist and author Joanna Macy, Greenberg believes lasting, sustainable change will come from “new worldviews.”

“We need new stories about who we are, and we’ve come to this point through stories that we are separate from each other, that we are separate from nature, that we’re separate from everything…What we’re trying to do with Earth Deeds is to tell a different story. That actually, fundamentally, we are connected, we are interdependent. And if we get that, then all our actions will inherently be sustainable,” says Greenberg.

“We’re not going to change climate change, we’re not going to change global warming by changing our lightbulbs. That’s just not gonna do it, on that level. We need to do bigger  things. So that’s the vision: How do we see what we’re doing as connected to ever larger actions?” -Daniel Greenberg, Founder and CEO, Earth Deeds

To start your onsetting journey with SERES, visit our team page here on the Earth Deeds website.

-Emily Neil, Communications Officer, SERES


  1. Musa Samura says

    I am very happy to read and know about Earth Deeds and to associated myself with noble and brilliant ideas onsetting.Greenberg has lot of good initiatives Thanks.

    • Emily Neil says

      Thank you for reading about onsetting and for sharing your thoughts Musa!

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