Is carbon offsetting worth it?

Is carbon offsetting worth it?
Credit: Reto Guntli


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Carbon offset schemes allow us to invest in environmental projects around the world to balance out our carbon footprints. You can offset the entire carbon footprint of your life, or just to limit the impact of a one-off activity such as taking a flight.

Carbon offsetting is seen by some as just another way for humans to avoid doing anything at all about climate change. Famously comparing it to the ancient Catholic church’s practice of selling indulgences for the absolution of sins, writer George Monbiot thinks it ‘buys complacency, political apathy and self-satisfaction’, while Friends of the Earth say it is ‘used by rich societies to carry on polluting but without the guilt’.

Responsible Travel stopped offering carbon offsets to its customers in 2009 because, as the CEO Justin Frances points out, ‘flying is one of the fastest growing sources of CO2 – one long haul return flight can produce more carbon dioxide per passenger than the average UK motorist in one year’. Instead the company want to encourage their customers to fly less, and when they do fly, make it count by giving back.

If we agree that climate change is the single biggest environmental threat, then we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as our first priority. As Duncan Clark points out in his book The Rough Guide to Green Living, there are all kinds of ways to reduce emissions very inexpensively. ‘After all, a single low-energy lightbulb, available for just £1 or so, can over the space of six years save 250kg of CO2 – equivalent to a short flight’.

After this, however, many experts agree that it’s still worth offsetting what you can’t reduce as it will ‘do good’ elsewhere. Professor of Sustainable Tourism at Griffith University in Australia Professor Susanne Becken says: ‘Carbon offsetting might be a band aid, but it is better than not doing anything.’

To offset your emissions as a traveller, you can go to an offset website, use the online tools to calculate the emissions of your trip, and then pay the offset company to reduce emissions elsewhere in the world by the same amount – so making your flight ‘carbon neutral’.

Most of the best-known offset schemes you can invest in relate to clean-energy projects that avoid emissions, reforestration that neutralise carbon and forest protection that avoids future emissions from deforestation. To combat climate change, we need to support all three types of activities.

Without actually visiting such projects ourselves, how can we be sure that they are bona fide? There are voluntary certification standards for carbon offset schemes, so it’s a good idea to buy from only reputable and certified sources. Unhelpfully, there’s not yet a central resource on these, but Dr. Susanne Becken says as a starting point South Pole Group, Atmosfair, MyClimate and CarboNZero are all certified and can be trusted. To calculate your carbon footprint independently, South Pole Group has a good tool.

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