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Is Carbon Offsetting Really A Climate Solution Or Is It a Licence to Pollute?

Is Carbon Offsetting Really A Climate Solution Or Just a Licence to Pollute?
Written by Jennifer Nini

Carbon offsetting is a voluntary form of carbon pricing, in other words, an individual voluntarily chooses to pay a price to compensate for the greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) their human activities have generated. When an individual pays this price, the money is used to buy ‘carbon offsets’ a form of credit which is then invested in projects that help to reduce GHG emissions, such as projects that conserve biodiversity. Carbon offsets are typically purchased by air travellers who pay a premium  (which in fact is a small amount usually just several dollars based on the carbon emissions generated by their flight). Buying carbon offsets is also a popular way for individuals, businesses and governments to reduce their environmental impact.

To put this in perspective, the average American generates about 19 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year and a passenger vehicle emits about 4.7 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. A one round-trip flight from Europe to New York creates about two to three tonnes of carbon. Carbon offsetting seems an ideal way to further reduce environmental footprint.

Is Carbon Offsetting Really A Climate Solution Or Is It a Licence to Pollute?

However, voluntary carbon offsetting does draw heavy criticism. Its opponents compare carbon offsets to popular recycling programs, where people indulge in purchases of single-use items such as bottles, cans and glasses because recycling encourages these transgressions. They argue that carbon offsets do little to curb emissions because it gives people a “licence to pollute” and that the focus should be on the prevention or mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions, rather than on the band-aid solutions offered by carbon offsets.

This is a belief shared by Sharon Beder, Honorary Professor at the University of Woollongong, who writes:

Carbon offsets are a greenwashing mechanism that enables individuals to buy themselves green credentials without actually changing their consumption habits, and nations to avoid the more difficult structural and regulatory change necessary to prevent further global warming.”

However a report I Will If You Will – Towards Sustainable Consumption from Britain’s National Consumer Council and Sustainable Development Commission, however, dismisses this, and finds that: “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.” In other words, carbon offsetting coupled with other sustainable lifestyle choices help to reduce GHG emissions.

Is Carbon Offsetting Really A Climate Solution Or Is It a Licence to Pollute?

And let’s face with only four to eight percent of customers choosing to pay to offset emissions, and the rest showing zero willingness to pay, one can only discern that those who do buy carbon offsets are amongst the environmentally conscious, particularly as carbon offsets are relatively inexpensive to purchase. According to Australian airline Qantas, carbon offsets for a one-way Sydney-Melbourne flight costs roughly 88¢, while for a one-way Sydney-London trip the price is $23.70 per passenger.

Related Post: My Big Fat Carbon Footprint: Is My Love of Travel Mother Nature’s Worst Nightmare?

To offset or not to offset, that is the question.

When it comes to reducing environmental impact, taking action is better than taking no action at all. This also applies to carbon offsetting. Carbon offsetting is one ‘tool’ in the ‘tool box’. It shouldn’t be viewed as the only tool, or the best tool, but a tool that, when used in combination with others, like reducing meat consumption or going vegan, composting, practicing zero waste or living off-grid, can be effective in reducing emissions.

Is Carbon Offsetting Really A Climate Solution Or Is It a Licence to Pollute?

Now to complicate matters even further, opponents of carbon offset programs claim that they simply don’t work or are ineffective at best. While it is true that not all carbon offsets are created equal, and some programs perform poorly and don’t deliver what’s promised (which can be said of many financial investments really), there are funds that do exactly what they are designed for. Carbon offset funds that invest in renewable projects, for example, tend to perform significantly better as there is verifiable reductions in GHG emissions while others like some tree planting projects, seem to make no difference at all.

So what makes a good carbon offset program?

Carbon offsets fall into two main categories: those that reduce fossil fuel emissions by investing in renewable energy, and those that ‘sequester’ or capture CO2 from the atmosphere to store for a period of time.

The Global Carbon Project, an organisation that conducts climate research, offers this advice about how to distinguish a good quality carbon offset program from a poor one:

  • choose offsets that have stringent, internationally trusted standards Gold StandardGreenhouse Gases Protocol and The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) ISO14064
  • choose carbon offsets that are independently audited and verified
  • choose ones that are genuine additional reductions, reductions that wouldn’t have otherwise occurred – holding all else constant – if not for the offsets
  • choose ones that permanently reduce emissions such as those that invest in renewable energy projects rather than tree planting as trees are susceptible to fires, pests and logging
  • choose offsets that avoid emissions through energy efficiency
  • choose ones that replace fossil fuel-based energy with a low or zero carbon (cleaner) energy such as solar power, wind power and hydroelectric power

Carbon Offsetting - A Climate Solution Or Is It a Licence to Pollute?

How do I purchase carbon offsets?

If you’re travelling with an airline that offers a carbon offset program, you can buy offsets from them, by paying an additional sum when purchasing your plane ticket.

Related Post: Cleaner Plane Travel: 7 Airlines That Offer Carbon Offset Programs

If you are travelling with an airline that doesn’t offer one, or offers a program that doesn’t tick the boxes of what makes a ‘good carbon offset program’, you can choose to purchase offsets from an independent program.

If you wish to offset your personal greenhouse gas emissions caused by activities such as driving or electricity usage or if you wish to offset your annual carbon footprint, you should purchase offsets from an independent program. Here are some popular carbon offset programs individuals and households:

Best Carbon Offset Funds and Programs

How do I purchase carbon offsets for my business, company or organisation?

If you’re an entrepreneur, business owner or operate a company, and want to offset the greenhouse gas emissions related to your business, these carbon offset funds cater to your needs:

It’s a good thing to remember, that while carbon offsets are a tool to be used to help mitigate environmental impact, offsets alone are not enough to solve climate change. It is to be used in combination with other ‘green lifestyle’ choices such as minimising wasteful consumption, making sustainable food choices and avoiding unnecessary travel.

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About the author

Jennifer Nini

Jennifer Nini is a writer, activist and the founding editor of Eco Warrior Princess. In 2010, after studying Fashion Business, she launched Eco Warrior Princess to explore her interests in fashion, politics, social justice and sustainability. Jennifer is also the founder of The Social Copywriter, a digital agency harnessing the power of copywriting and content marketing to help mindful businesses reach more people. When she's not perfecting a sentence or coaching business clients, you will find her at her certified organic farm reconnecting with nature.

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