December 19, 2015

Carbon Offsetting: Mindful Solution or Just Good Marketing?

one less car

I’ve always viewed the idea of Carbon Offsetting with skepticism, interest and concern in almost equal quantities.

As a self-confessed travel “addict,” clearly the idea that we can wipe out our carbon sins is highly attractive.

Two days after the end of the Paris UN Climate Talks, the commitments made now await ratification by the 195 participating countries—of which, a minimum of the top 55 CO2 producing countries need to ratify the agreement before the commitments and emissions goals can become legally binding. Ratification will happen from next year.

Though the achievements of the summit have been groundbreaking in many ways, now is the time for action and follow up, on a country level, but ultimately on an individual level. With each decision made by us as individuals in our daily lives being important.

But when it comes to housekeeping our own actions and trying to reduce our carbon footprints, how important is carbon offsetting?

Whilst checking a box during the reservation process of our next flight and agreeing to contribute an extra 15 Dollars / Euros / Pounds (depending on the length of the flight) may give us a warm fuzzy feeling, it does not feel like the solution needed to solve the world’s environmental crisis. To be clear, I am not denouncing all airlines’ offsetting initiatives. Rather, I am laying forth some of the pros and cons of carbon offsetting as a solution to the impact of our carbon generating lifestyles.

Firstly, when we offset financially, what does that money do?

Many airlines, and other businesses offer the ability to donate online in order to offset our carbon created by flying. There are websites dedicated to calculating our carbon footprint and then donating to offset that amount.

Money that we donate through airlines and carbon offsetting organisations goes toward funding initiatives around the world that invest in local sustainable energy projects, particularly in developing countries. In September this year the UN Climate Change Committee launched a new platform, Climate Neutral Now which allows individuals and corporations to calculate their carbon footprint and offset accordingly. The platform takes financial contributions and invests them into clean energy projects. For a contribution of $3.50, a user can back a hydroelectric plant in Kerala, India.

So why might Carbon offsetting not be a great solution?

Whilst many of the initiatives are very worthwhile and positive efforts to bring solutions for our environmental crisis to the table, it is clear that they can address only a part of the problem.

The fact is that we are playing catch-up from decades of ignorance and under investment into sustainable energy. Whilst work now towards a more sustainable future is to be commended, we have reached a time where more drastic action needs to be taken.

Many have argued that carbon offsetting schemes are completely unethical since we ask others to offset our carbon for us. We’ll just continue flying and eating meat, whilst someone in a developing country (largely due to the cost of labour) has to do the work in offsetting for us.

Jeff Gazard, a board member of the Aviation Environment Federation, in response to questioning about the benefit of carbon offsets, has been quoted as saying:

“Offsets are rubbish because:

They don’t work in a technical sense as treating a person’s CO2 emissions/offset so-called balancing act as a discrete closed loop ignores what’s going on elsewhere with the entire carbon/anthropogenic emissions cycle—this is why we try and work towards binding global reductions overall. Offsets are not helping here—there is no guaranteed net reduction. Gold-standard schemes etc etc are all examples of middle-class NGO hand-wringing pro-business angst—yes WWF, I mean you!

Asking someone—inevitably in the developing world for reasons of cheapness!—to take on your carbon reduction is morally and ethically indefensible. If you asked an African to give up smoking on your behalf and you carried on how does that improve your health? What if they’ve never smoked in the first place?

They prevent behaviour change keep on flying, everything’s fine! They are a 21st C Papal Indulgence, no more, no less!”

To me as a travelling individual, it just does not add up that we can continue to spurt out tonnes of carbon at a height of 20,000 feet (making the impact more fatal) from our hard earned plane seats. We cut off one hand whilst tending the other.

So what do we do?

There’s a truth that’s been bothering me for a while. As someone who’s been travelling for the last three months, and prior to that travelled a lot for work and for vacations—is this sort of travel really good or sustainable?

I have to conclude at this point that the flying part is definitely not. There are alternatives, and certainly I believe we can cut down a lot on flights for short distances whilst continuing to be able to travel.

The alternative to offset schemes, which the UN platform also encourages, is that rather than paying someone else to make up for the problem we’re creating, that we look to see where we can compensate in our own lives. If we take a flight, what can we do to offset that in our day to day activities? If we take a flight to New York, can we cycle to work for a month or take public transportation? Become a vegetarian? There are options that we have.

We are not too small to make a difference.

This morning, I walked along the beach enjoying the views of the spot I am in right now. As I went I noticed plastic and glass bottles every few meters. I started picking them up. Can you imagine the impact if everyone living by a beach walked along that beach for a few minutes every morning and picked up any pieces of trash they found?

This starts with us taking responsibility for the impact of our actions, from today. Including me.

To calculate your carbon footprint and to see how you can start reducing your carbon impact yourself, visit here.


Cowspiracy Reveals the Secret Causing the Destruction of Our Planet.


Author: Ellie Cleary

Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Su May/Flickr

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