Carbon offsetting is a term you hear bandied about the place, and many airlines, gas stations, and tour operators (amongst many many others!) offer it. So what actually is it? In a nutshell, it is where you pay into a scheme that either reduces emissions for others or takes out carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
There are many schemes that do this, the most popular being planting trees, investing in renewable energy sources, providing fuel-efficient methods of cooking for people in developing countries, or even in schemes that produce biofuel from methane. Looking at it like this, it sounds fantastic – dependent on what scheme you choose, you could offset your flight from the States to the UK for around $20. Bargain. Or is it? As Greenpeace puts it: ‘it isn’t that what they offer is bad [….] but rather that they don’t do what they say on the tin. They don’t actually cancel out – er, offset – the emissions to which they are linked.’
So why don’t they cancel out or offset the emissions to which they are linked?
There are numerous problems. The first being that every company that offers schemes assigns a different monetary value to it – this can vary by a factor of 100 (Riverford Organic Farmers). This is dodgy to say the least. It has been made into a ‘commodity’ that can be sold, and therefore, as with all commodities, do you get what you pay for? The schemes are also very rarely CARBON REMOVAL OR CAPTURE schemes, as although the technology has been around for a while, it is supremely expensive (CBNC).
The second is trees. I love trees and support the Woodland Trust in the UK, however, the earth is only a certain size, and there are only certain places that can accommodate the planting of trees. In fact, so keen are people to plant trees, they have even dug up ancient peat bogs (which are incredible carbon capture vehicles) to plant trees (BBC article). Trees also take time to grow – it takes 20 years (minimum) for most trees to get to the size required to take out the amount of CO2 that you have used on that transatlantic flight. Do we have 20 years?
Trees are also only carbon release delayers. They will always release the amount of carbon that they have captured when they cease to be alive, whether that is by logging for homes, furniture, or fuel, or simply that they have lived out their lives and it is their time to return to the earth. So if your scheme is putting money into purchasing quick-growing forestry trees that are destined for logging, has this tree actually had time to capture the carbon that you have emitted? Also, as a side note, did you know that trees release methane? No, me neither until I started researching, and admittedly most of the methane comes from trees in wetland areas, but the impact of it, shouldn’t be discounted.
This report from the Yale School of the Environment is enlightening. No one is suggesting that trees shouldn’t be planted (we need a huge amount more for all their other amazing benefits too) or even be cut down (apparently methane lasts around 10 years in the atmosphere as opposed to decades for CO2), but perhaps carbon offsetting via trees is not as simple as it might sound, even if we did have the space to plant our way out of the climate crisis.
There is no doubt that doing something is better than doing nothing, so if you are investing in carbon offsetting, please do continue! It is a band-aid that the earth sorely needs, but it isn’t the long-term answer to our climate crisis. We as travelers need to think carefully about how we go about things, and how we ask our providers to change and make things more environmentally sound. We HAVE to reduce our emissions.
What steps can we take?
1) Do you HAVE to take a flight? If you are flying domestically, flights are so much heavier on Carbon Emissions than rail or car. So fuel heavy is take-off and landing that domestic flights produce 70% more carbon emissions per km per passenger than International ones. [Guardian]
2) If you do have to fly, fly economy over first. First-class tickets emit 4 times the amount of CO2 as an economy flight. Also, try to go direct to avoid all those extra emissions that are accrued during take-off and landing, even if it costs a few more dollars. (BBC – how to cut your emissions when flying)
2) If you rent a car, can it be hybrid or fully electric?
3) Petition/lobby your providers or governments to make changes that actually count. Changes that reduce emissions NOW, not in 20 years. By airlines investing in carbon offset schemes, are they putting their head in the sand and therefore not investing in new technology to make flying less carbon emission heavy?
4) Go reusable. With everything. Plastic comes from fossil fuels and is therefore not just polluting when it comes to throwing it away, but also in the manufacture of it….
The last word must go to the Head of Climate Change at the WWF as he knows a whole lot more than I do!
“I think the most important thing to say about carbon offsetting is we absolutely cannot offset our way out of the climate emergency,” says Gareth Redmond-King, Head of Climate Change at WWF. (WickedLeeks)
Do you think about carbon offsetting while traveling? And if so, what steps do you take to help? Let us know in the comments below!
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