What is Carbon Offsetting … and Should You Be Doing It?

 

Article by Mary Picard 

Carbon Offsets, Carbon Neutral – the terms alone sound vague and complex. Sometimes, after hours puzzling out intricate travel itineraries, an airline will ask if you want to add a voluntary carbon offset or tax  to the price of your plane ticket. Wait. Like after all the other extra costs and taxes added onto the price of a plane ticket, they want you to pay more? Really?

 

It’s a knee-jerk reaction. Yet when you start peeling back the layers of carbon offsetting, the concept starts to become really intriguing, promising and well, kind of cool. As traveling the world becomes a reality for more and more people, we need to find ways to combat the extra pollution this travel creates. Carbon neutral schemes are a way to help make our planet more resilient as more pressure is put on it.

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The carbon trading market 

Stemming from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol – the United Nations modified its ‘Framework on Climate Change’ and created a carbon trading market where industrialised countries balance part of their own pollution by funding emission reducing projects in developing countries. Examples of these projects include improved cook stove efficiency in places like Kenya or Madagascar, protecting areas of the Amazon rain forest in Brazil or improving water quality or agricultural practices in perhaps Nepal.

 
Why offset plane journeys?

The answer is simple: air travel is a big cause of global CO2 pollution. The best way to illustrate this is to calculate your environmental footprint. If you play with the model a little bit, you will see that just 2 or 3 long haul trips a year will likely  double  your carbon footprint. According to the UN affiliated Climate Neutral Now, to effectively combat climate change, you need to measure your climate footprint, reduce your emissions as much as possible and offset what you cannot reduce with UN certified emission reductions. 

How do I calculate my carbon footprint?

Your carbon footprint is defined by the oxford dictionary as "a measure of the impact human activities have on the environment in terms of the amount of greenhouse gases produced, measured in units of carbon dioxide". There are two main ways we produce greenhouse gases. Firstly, the direct use of fossil fuels by using electricity and gas to heat and power our homes, as well as emissions  stemming from transport whether car, bus or flight. Secondly, the indirect contribution to greenhouse emissions by what we eat, buy and the leisure activities we enjoy. A wide range of carbon footprint calculators can be found on the internet that take the information you input on these direct and indirect actions to calculate your footprint.

 

Carbon footprint calculations are typically based on annual emissions from the previous 12 months. The models are primarily based on conversion factors sourced from different national government departments, agencies and the worldwide NGOs such as the World Resources Institute. WWF does a good general calculation at http://footprint.wwf.org.uk/ that takes 5 minutes to complete. However, if you are looking to just calculate a certain flight footprint then the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has a reliable calculator available online as well as an app for mobile use (see links below). Remember this is a general calculation and if you look at different websites the results will vary. Different models use different weightings and parameters –but the overall trends will be visible. Beware of calculators that lead you directly to an 'offset now' button, stick to not for profit organisations like WWF and the UN to help you calculate your footprint. 

It doesn't cost a lot

To help meet their countries’ carbon reduction goals, many airlines have added a voluntary carbon offsetting programs, where they officially sponsor projects which passengers can opt into.  The added cost is based on the distance of a trip, but the good news is, even a long journey, say Hong Kong to London, will only add extra 40 HKD (5USD) to a journey.  Companies such as Cathay Pacific and Thai Airlines now allow you to build carbon offsets into the price of your ticket– and link their websites to information about where your contributions actually go. Some airlines do not offer carbon offsetting –but if you are serious about helping fight climate change, there are many programs you can choose to support. 

 

What's the downside?

Critics of carbon offsetting argue that it is simply a bandage to cover our guilt of excessive consumerism, that carbon offsetting is a drop in the bucket compared to pollution created by power generation, ground transportation, other industries and countries as a whole.  They also argue that voluntary donations to environmental projects will never substantively help fight climate change. Yet, the wave of change begins with small ripples. Take the organic food industry. According to Mordor Intelligence, global sales of organic food increased by almost 200% between 2006 and 2016. It is the fastest growing food sector in many industrialised countries.  Clearly, consumers are becoming more aware of issues like pesticide usage, fair trade issues and sustainable farming practices and it is revolutionising the food industry. As people become more concerned about climate change, the carbon offset sector can also experience similar growth. 

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solar panels
What to look for

Another complaint that has plagued the Carbon Offset market is dodgy, even bogus, carbon offsetting programs.  How do you choose a good carbon program to donate to?  If you opt into an airline’s pre-selected offset scheme, they should have already done the homework for you. But if the airline program doesn’t appeal to you, or it doesn’t offer one, an online search will give you loads of projects to choose from. To insure your donation goes to a legitimate project, check for the following 3 things:

1) The project should already be up and running and it should be permanent, i.e. you aren’t supporting a farmer to plant trees he is going to cut down in 5 years.

2) The program should be transparent and tell you exactly where the program actually takes place and should be verified by an independent third party. Look for the stamp of approval from the VCS (Verified Carbon Standard) and VGS (Verified Gold Standard), independent NGOs that vet and check carbon offsetting programs.

3) The project information should state how many cubic tons of carbon it offsets or how many tons of water it saves per year.

 The United Nation’s website www.climateneutralnow.org  and the WWF supported Gold Standard (www.goldstandard.org)  are 2 excellent sites that have a catalogue of vetted projects to choose from. Click the buttons below to take you to either site. 

What to avoid

If you are choosing a carbon offsetting program on your own, really drill down into the details of both the project and the website you are choosing from. Some very official looking websites turn out to be for-profit organisations. Even if they contribute to high quality projects, they can easily be skimming a profit  off the top of your donation. Stop and reflect whether or not the project you select really makes sense from a sustainable stand point:

  • Does a project protect one piece of land while putting more pressure on other land near by? (The answer should be no). 

  • Does it support some sort of technology that is vague and doesn’t make immediate sense to you? (the answer should be no)

  • Does it create new sources of carbon neutrality that haven’t existed before? (the answer should be yes)

  • Does it fit with your values? (The answer to this should be heck yes). 

 

In other words, try to find a few projects that you feel good about – they make sense to you and are measured and verified by independent organizations. Get in the habit of making a contribution to these projects in proportion to the amount that you travel.

 

For most of us, holidays in far way places are something our grandparents and great grandparents could only dream of. Now that we have this great luxury of world travel, allocating a few dollars for each trip we take will not only allow us to see the world, but also to help make it a better place.  Beware of the pitfalls, but don’t be afraid to jump in – banding together to develop good environmental habits will help us move toward a future we can all live in.