Is Carbon Offsetting A Good Way To Reduce Your Environmental Impact?

Photo by Diana Parkhouse on Unsplash

Carbon offsetting is the practice of voluntarily choosing to compensate for the greenhouse gas emissions incurred by a particular activity, by purchasing carbon offsets or carbon credits, which then go towards a project helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Traditionally, these projects were focused on planting trees which would absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but today they are much wider than this and include projects which can prevent carbon dioxide ever entering the atmosphere, such as renewable energy schemes.

Carbon offsetting is most commonly used to compensate for air travel, and you’ll often see an option to ‘add on’ carbon offsetting when you purchase a plane ticket. It’s also used by businesses who want to maintain a carbon neutral brand and so will offset any damaging activity. Since the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 governments have also employed carbon offsetting to reduce their emissions. The Kyoto Protocol gave countries emission targets to stay within, but Article 17 also allowed ‘emissions trading’. This meant that countries which had units of emissions to spare could sell their excess to countries which were over their targets (by nature, this would usually be developing countries selling emissions units to developed countries).

In effect, the idea of carbon offsetting has created a new commodity: carbon dioxide. Today we often hear of concepts like ‘carbon trading’, and carbon is now tracked and traded like any other commodity within the ‘carbon market’.

A genius way to reduce environmental impact?

Carbon offsetting can seem to be a great way to neutralise our environmental impact, and to fund projects like solar energy plants, which are aiming to move us towards a more sustainable situation.

Britain’s National Consumer Council and Sustainable Development Commission created a report looking at how our social setting and those around us can contribute to our desire to live an environmentally friendly life. The report was entitled ‘I Will If You Will — Towards Sustainable Consumption’ and discusses offsetting as a positive way to create social change:

“A positive approach to offsetting could have public resonance well beyond the CO2 offset, and would help to build awareness of the need for other measures.”

Essentially, by making carbon offsetting a mainstream practice, we could bring environmental issues to the forefront of consumers’ minds.

This seems true. It’s unrealistic to expect that the majority of people would immediately stop flying, or ditch their car, but it’s conceivable that carbon offsetting could become an expected practice. The mere fact that it’s now an add-on option when you purchase flights on most major airlines is adding to this, making it a much more visible practice and suggesting that other customers are choosing to offset their emissions.

However, there are also several compelling reasons to think that carbon offsetting isn’t a great solution to our environmental problems.

Or simply neglecting the real underlying issue?

The main arguing against encouraging carbon offsetting schemes is that is fails to address the true problem. Carbon offsetting gives individuals, businesses, and even governments an easy way to buy their way out of responsibility for the greenhouse gas emissions produced by their activities. It gives us an excuse to undertaken carbon heavy activities, like flying, without an accompanying heavy conscience.

In a way, it’s similar to why recycling isn’t the answer to our waste problems. By encouraging recycling as a solution, we tell ourselves that it’s okay to buy lots of single use items, as long as they end up in the recycling bin.

George Monbiot, journalist at The Guardian, has eloquently compared carbon offsets with the practice of selling indulgences in the Catholic Church. Within Catholicism, it was possible to receive absolution from your sins, and a reduced time spent in purgatory after death, in return for making substantial financial donations to the church.

“You buy yourself a clean conscience by paying someone else to undo the harm you are causing.” — George Monbiot

CheatNeutral.com also made this point well. It’s a website parodying the idea of carbon offsets by comparing it to a service for relationship infidelity. Essentially, you would offset your unfaithful habits by paying someone else to be faithful to their own partner, and choose not to cheat on them. This will leave you with a ‘clear conscience’ about your own cheating.

“CheatNeutral offsets your cheating by funding someone else to be faithful. This neutralises the pain and unhappy emotion and leaves you with a clear conscience.”

There are a few other key arguments against carbon offsetting as a solution for global warming:

  • It’s very hard to quantify the impact of our greenhouse gas emissions, and to calculate an appropriate amount of offsets. If you’re choosing to fund tree planting, for instance, the calculation will be based on how many trees are needed to absorb the amount of carbon dioxide your activity has emitted, but you have no way of knowing that all of these trees will make it to mature adulthood, and exist long enough to actually absorb the carbon.
  • There’s a huge amount of offsetting schemes, and it’s hard to tell which are actually having a positive impact on our sustainability. The Kyoto Protocol did lay out rules for this, and there are Voluntary Gold Standard (VGS) certified schemes which align with these rules which offer some level of credibility. However, it’s not always the case. Heather Rogers, in her book Green Gone Wrong, visited a VGS-certified biomass power plant in India where staff reported concerns such as the plant using trees which had been chopped down to power the plant, which allegedly ran on agricultural waste. Needless to say, they refused to show her around.
  • Despite the potential to become mainstream, currently only 4–8% of consumers choose to offset their activities.
  • The whole concept of trading carbon emissions and buying credits to neutralise our impact puts a monetary value on the environmental health of our planet. It’s an idea that exists within a wider economic framework of capitalism, in which we have been trained to believe that money and purchasing power can fix everything, and that growth is always good. And yet, we are still commissioning new fossil fueled power plants and expanding our airlines — the problem still exists and we can’t just buy our way out of it.

So should you carbon offset?

Relying on carbon offsetting to neutralise our carbon footprint, in conclusion, doesn’t seem right. It simply isn’t that simple, and our actions still have environmental consequences that we can’t just solve with money.

So don’t use carbon offsetting schemes as an excuse, or as the primary way that you reduce your environmental footprint. Focus on the big changes that reduce impact: reduce the amount of meat and dairy in your diet, choose to cycle, walk, or get public transport where possible, swap to a renewable energy supplier, use your voice to put pressure on businesses and governments to change their practices.

If you’re already doing those things, then by all means do use carbon offsetting schemes. We all have a carbon footprint, and if you’re already actively doing what you can to reduce this, then donating towards projects which are working towards real climate solutions seems like a great next step.

If you liked this post, you might also like my posts on other common decisions which influence your environmental impact: dried vs tinned beans, which kind of milk to buy, and swapping plastic bags for tote bags.