Are Carbon Offsets a Good Thing?

I’m a little ashamed to admit it, but I will be flying 7 times this year. This may seem like a bit of a contradiction for someone who writes blog posts about being environmentally friendly. I’ve been studying abroad this year and have had the opportunity to visit a few places around the world. In fact, by the time I get back home, I will have actually flown a full loop around the world this year. This is obviously absolutely awful for the environment. And I’m not feeling my best about it. So to ease my guilt and attempt to give something back to the environment, I decided to pay for carbon offsets for all of these flights. I’ll be honest, I did research, but not a whole lot. So I wasn’t entirely sure how effective offsets were, but I’ve looked into it in more detail now and I’m going to share my findings here.

On twitter I had mentioned that I had paid for carbon offsets for my flights this year, to which I received this delightful response:

So I thought, okay Mark, we’ll see if it really is b*llocks.

Okay so to start, what actually are carbon offsets? They’re projects that aim to ‘offset’ the carbon that has been released into the environment. For example, projects that protect forests, develop renewable energy sources or increase energy efficiency. The aim is to negate the damaging effects that your flying has had on the environment.

When I first looked into carbon offsetting I came across this article which states that the problem with carbon offsets is simply that not enough passengers buy them. Airlines Qantas and Jetstar note that only one in ten of their passengers buy carbon offsets for their flights. This makes sense, most people don’t want to spend extra money when they’ve probably just paid more for a flight than they want too. Plus the fact that most people probably don’t even know what carbon offsets are, or why they should buy them. Qantas and Jetstar note that in 2014/2015 only 1.2% of their emissions were offset by passengers.

I decided to purchase all of my offsets through Qantas’ Future Planet site. You can put in flights from any location there, and the scheme is verified by the Australian government’s National Carbon Offset Standard (NCOS). The NCOS makes sure that the projects are actually helping in managing greenhouse gas emissions and working towards carbon neutrality. So I can be confident that my money is actually going to environmentally beneficial projects.

The way carbon offsetting is advertised leads you to believe you simply pay the money and your carbon emissions have vanished. But this isn’t really how it works. Although the projects they fund are helping the environment, it’s complex. The investment of your offsetting money into renewable energies for example, is no doubt a good thing, but it’s not going to take the already released carbon out of the environment.

This article notes that carbon offsetting can in some cases cause more issues rather than solve them. Noting that planting trees, a popular offset activity often needs large amounts of chemical fertilisers, weeders and herbicides. These things themselves are polluting and can also kill local animals. So if you’re looking at an offsetting scheme that involves planting trees, it would probably be better to ditch it in favour of one that focuses on renewable energies for example.

One of the biggest criticisms of offsetting though, is not that its ineffective, but that it encourages us to be lazy about our environmental impact. As this article notes, ‘When you buy an offset, you are paying someone to cut their emissions so you don’t have to.’ As much as that quote is true, this criticism can be argued against. As I noted earlier, only one in ten of Jetstar’s and Qantas’ passengers have bought carbon offsets. It’s likely that these buyers are people who know what offsets are and care about the environment enough to spend extra money on them. I would include myself in this category.

Many say that offsets encourage us to feel like we don’t have to put any individual effort into reducing our emissions. As if the ability to buy offsets stops us from reducing our flying. Maybe this is true for some individuals. But if I am being honest, even if I was unable to purchase carbon offsets, I would still be doing all 7 of my flights this year.

There is absolutely no doubt that not flying is better than flying and buying carbon offsets. I think that is something that anyone purchasing carbon offsets needs to understand. By flying you are still having a negative impact on the planet. But most people aren’t going to stop flying. I think we should be bringing more awareness to carbon offsets as something positive you can do that will slightly, but not fully, negate the negative consequences of your flight.

So in response to Mark’s tweet to me, I don’t think carbon offsets are ‘a load of b*llocks. But, they are not the perfect solution either. I would encourage everyone to reduce their flying if possible, as that is the best thing you can do, however I do understand how contradictory that sounds coming from someone who is flying a whole loop of the globe this year. I will continue to buy carbon offsets on every flight I go on in future.

05 comments on “Are Carbon Offsets a Good Thing?

  • Helen , Direct link to comment

    Hi there
    I just wanted to make a point about tree planting. No one ever, ever, ever uses fertilisers to grow trees! And really ‘weeders’ and herbicides are the same thing! And generally they are only used for the first few years. They aren’t needed after that – and some tree planters (like us!) don’t use chemicals when they can use a scythe (we avoid petrol cutters because of their carbon footprint!) I can happily share lots of accurate information about tree planting – based on our experience of planting 25,000. We offer carbon mitigation too!

    • Olivia , Direct link to comment

      Hi Helen, thanks so much for your comment. I will be honest that tree’s are not my area of expertise – and I’m a little confused about fertiliser. I did a quick internet search and found a few sites that talk about fertilising trees, for example: https://www.mortonarb.org/trees-plants/tree-and-plant-advice/horticulture-care/fertilizing
      So is it the case that you don’t need to use fertiliser, but some people do? Would love to know!
      I was highly critical on planting trees as an offsetting activity, but I’ll definitely have a re think over this.

      • Helen , Direct link to comment

        I’ve never heard of anyone in the Uk using fertiliser for tree planting. Except individual trees in a garden situation of course.
        Trees have very many benefits for nature and I don’t think there’s a better way of mitigating any remaining carbon footprint you have after reducing it as much as you can.

  • How many Earths would you need to live like me? – THE EASY ETHICAL , Direct link to comment

    […] Fly less – this is the really obvious one, but it’s the one I feel is hardest to tackle. What I find difficult about flying is that if you’re going to a long-haul destination then there really is no other alternative method. Having relations in far away places makes it really hard to cut down on flying. I definitely want to travel by train for destinations in Europe, and as for any long-haul flights – I will make sure to offset. (I know this isn’t always the best tactic, but it does do something – check out my post about it here) […]

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