How to Use Carbon Offsets on Your Next Trip

“I pledge to offset the CO2 impact of my holiday.”

Addressing climate change is a must for both travellers, and Travel & Tourism on the whole. While there are many facets to increasing sustainability in the industry, carbon offsetting is one topic that many travellers overlook as a necessary imperative in creating trip based around the ideals of low-impact and eco-friendly.

At its core, the carbon offsetting industry is about reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in equal proportion to your personal or family emissions. Every aspect of our lives — electricity usage, food consumption, mileage driven — contribute to carbon emissions and are therefore a factor impacting climate change.

The term “carbon footprint” refers to the carbon pollution and greenhouse emissions a single person or company generates. Carbon offsetting programs aim to compensate for that carbon footprint by supporting programs elsewhere in the world that remove carbon dioxide from the air in equal measure. These programs are often tree planting and reforestation initiatives, as well as investment projects to increase energy efficiency and renewable energy sources.

For travellers, carbon offsetting is an important topic because flying significantly ups your carbon footprint. In fact, one meteorologist from the United States was so taken aback by the impact of his frequent travelers that he announced he and his wife would never again take a flight. He wrote:

“World governments will never agree in time to coordinate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. If anything is to change, it will have to come from individuals taking ownership of the problem themselves. … By vowing not to fly, I went from having more than double the carbon footprint as the average American to about 30% less than average.” [Quartz]

For those unable or unwilling to give up flying altogether, carbon offsetting programs become a way to mitigate the negative environmental impact of your trip. Because although there is debate in the industry about efficacy of many carbon offsetting projects, the industry has made significant strides in the past decade to overcome the obstacles and produce high quality programs with a measureable impact on the carbon dioxide entering Earth’s atmosphere.

The Debate Around Carbon Offsetting

Carbon offsetting as a industry is not without debate. In the early days of carbon offsetting initiatives, there were few standards ensuring the funded projects were genuinely compensating for the carbon dioxide emissions of individuals and companies.

One significant advancement in the industry has been the development of standard minimums for the type of projects that qualify as a carbon offset. Funded programs must be those that would not be possible without the money from carbon offsetting. If a company or individual already donates to rainforest reforestation, then that donation does not count as a carbon offset since the action was in motion already. Instead, the best carbon programmes are now funding projects that would not otherwise be possible — wind farms that previously had no viable funding source, or development projects in developing countries to provide people with alternatives to wood-burning cookstoves.

With the projects now certified and tracked, companies around the world have stepped up their efforts to offset carbon emissions — corporations are some of the largest funding sources for carbon offsetting programmes. But at the corporate and personal level, one of the largest criticisms centers on the fact that offsetting doesn’t address the underlying behaviors. There is no possible way that humans can undo the damage caused by burning fossil fuels. Although carbon offsets can mitigate the damage, the only true solution is seriously alter our consumption habits. You don’t get a “free pass” to unsustainable behavior just because you plan to offset your actions. Some contend that carbon offsets give people a clean conscious to pay others to offset their personal choices, and that’s the sort of attitude that set in motion the climate issues we are facing today.

There’s validity in each side of the debate. We certainly have an obligation to lessen our carbon footprint just as we offset those emissions that are impossible to fully mitigate.

How to Offset Your Carbon Footprint for Travel

Offsetting your carbon footprint is about more than calculating the amount and donating, it’s about selecting projects that will have genuine impact. Many of the best programs use carbon offset funds to bring critical services like energy, water, and food to vulnerable people and places. When donating to a program, one way to ensure the money will make its way to high-quality projects is to look for certification and the baseline standards the organisation’s projects.

One respected company within the industry is Gold Standard. This group grew from a need for high quality oversight over the many carbon offsetting programs. Gold Standard was “established in 2003 by WWF and other international NGOs as a best practice benchmark for energy projects developed under the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), Gold Standard was set up to ensure that projects delivered genuine emission reductions and long-term sustainable development.” Many of the projects funded by the carbon offset calculators below are certified by this organisation, ensuring the money will make its way to forests in Costa Rica, cookstoves in rural Africa, and wind farms in India.

  1. Lessen the carbon impact of your trip. Your flights will usually represent the largest portion of your trip’s carbon footprint, consider using airlines that have invested in advanced technology and equipment to already lessen the impact of your flights. This National Geographic piece lists the most fuel-efficient airlines in the word. Additionally, consider how you can shift your plans to include closer destinations, or accommodations using renewable energy sources.
  2. Calculate the carbon footprint of your trip. Use an online calculator to input the details of your next trip and calculate a number to represent the carbon impact of your trip. This calculator from Carbon Footprint is free and includes a range of options to calculate the carbon footprint of flights, buses, trains, and more.
  3. Choose a quality carbon offset programme. Once you have a figure representing the carbon footprint of your trip, select and organisation funding quality and certified carbon reduction programmes around the world. Carbon Footprint supports industry certified programmes, as does MyClimate.

Many of the most touristed destinations in the world — reefs, beaches, and rainforests — are already stressed by climate change. With a commitment to lowering your personal carbon footprint and offsetting trips, you can be a part of the climate change solutions. Travellers must join the global efforts to keep this planet liveable.


This post is part of a series about the various pledges that are part of the Is It Too Much To Ask campaign. You can view the campaign microsite here.

For an overview: Do you want to be on the endangered species list?