Does Buying Carbon Offsets Make Flying Okay?

We arm ourselves with KeepCups and canvas produce bags, wielding our metal straws and bamboo sporks in the fight to keep this world beautiful. We fight for clean oceans, spotless beaches, unmarred rainforests and frozen polar caps. But does fighting for it mean we should never get the chance to see it?

You've read about all the ways you can travel plastic free, even in countries where you shouldn't be sipping on anything but mai-tais, but what about the environmental cost of the journey itself? "Ah", you say, drawing a long, guilt free sip from your home-made smoothie "but there is carbon offsetting."

This is true, but is carbon offsetting really all it says it is? Well, it's complicated.

First of all, what is carbon offsetting?

Carbon offsetting is the concept of compensating for carbon dioxide emissions. This is done via initiatives that directly reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This can be through projects like planting trees to filter CO2, installing methane gas traps at landfill sites or dairy farms, or investing in wind and solar farms which eliminate the need for fossil fuel use in the first place.

These carbon offsetting programs gain credibility by guaranteeing emission savings are always 'additional'. If the savings you paid for would have been achieved anyway, your money will be invested in a new project that will generate even more.

The little box you tick when you book your flights means your funds are going into a project designed to reduce CO2 emissions by the amount that you filling that seat generates. In In theory, this sounds like a fast ticket to guilt free travel, but are we just using it to assuage our guilt?

Is buying carbon offsets just avoiding the bigger problem?

The argument against the efficiency of carbon offsetting is that the damage done by carbon emissions here aren't fixed by removing them over there. The damage is still being done and "out of sight out of mind" doesn't work if we want to do everything possible to fix the situation we are in. This can build complacency, or lead to a mentality of having a "license to pollute" as one feels they have paid the debt of their high emissions and are therefore allowed to indulge.

Other issues lie in the projects themselves, such as the time taken for trees planted to actually begin filtering CO2, or the fact that this carbon is only temporarily held for as long as the trees are standing. Offsetting projects might also include installing better cooking stoves in poorer countries to improve respiratory health and to reduce emissions, but the introduction of these new methods might prove disruptive to the lives of the locals and their traditions, while also pushing the job of reducing emissions onto them on our behalf. Placing the priority on changing other's habits before our own feels very much like passing on the responsibility.

So should this responsibility fall onto us?

The short answer is yes. Of course it's our responsibility to combat our own emissions, but how we go about doing that when we can't help but to have something of a carbon footprint just by living our lives may mean we have to include initiatives like this. It would make sense then that this sense of responsibility should also be placed onto governments and corporations. In some cases, it is. QANTAS already proudly covers the carbon emissions of all their flight staff (though not yours), while Virgin are celebrating 10 years of their carbon offsetting program. More significantly though, there's the big news that by 2021 all internationally flying airlines will begin to offset any increase in CO2 emissions above that emitted in 2020, under the UN agreement CORSIA – Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation.
The only issue here is that this agreement is voluntary for the first 6 years.

The good news is that 70 countries have already volunteered to participate in the CORSIA agreement from its outset in 2017 including Canada, the UK, the United States, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, Sweden, and Norway.

Participation in any offsetting schemes is currently voluntary, as is conforming to the standards used to regulate carbon offsetting initiatives like the Voluntary Gold Standard (VGS), Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) and the National Carbon Offset Standard (NCOS).

These voluntary standards are good news for us if we don't feel that leaving it up to the airlines to fix our problems feels significant enough. What these standards provide us is a means to know that the money we are investing is going into a project that is verified to deliver on what it says.

The reality

In the end, the truth we have to face is that greater impact would be made by avoiding flying altogether and taking our own steps to be carbon neutral with the choices made in our daily lives, while corporations or governments take on the responsibility of funding these carbon offsetting projects. But if giving up flying just isn't in the cards for you (like it is for many of us) these standards can be used as a way for independent initiatives to credibly claim carbon neutrality and to seek certification, which means we can pick our own projects to fund.

If I want to buy carbon offsets, where do I go?

Why not try somewhere like Greenfleet, a tree planting Not-for-profit who were the first to partner with The Gold Standard Foundation (VGS), requiring them to demonstrate that they make permanent greenhouse gas emission reductions, do no harm to their surrounding environment or community, and have regularly audited social and environmental impacts.
If you prefer to let someone else do your investing you can visit Terrapass who have options for individuals as well as for businesses to purchase once-off carbon offsets or renewable energy credits, or longer term subscriptions to let you live a truly carbon neutral life. They only deal with projects verified under VGS and even let you purchase carbon offset gift cards so you can drop a hint to your family and friends.They outline the different areas they invest in, letting you know exactly what your money is going into and the impact it will make on the local American communities they work with.

You can also go directly through the Gold Standard (VGS) website to select projects to put your funds into. They give you a breakdown of the impacts and benefits of the project and let you purchase your savings by the tonne. Coupled with a carbon emission calculator, you can easily balance your impact.

Or perhaps look through the list provided at The Australian Department of the Environment and Energy of NCOS certified organisations, products and services.

You can even keep your eye out for the NCOS certification logo.

Again though, carbon offsetting is really only beneficial if it's not just used as a band aid on a bullet wound. If carbon offsetting doesn't tickle your free-range-fancy, and walking to your long distance boyfriend on the other side of the world is a little outside your exercise regime, then why not consider taking matters into your own hands and creating a "carbon budget" alongside your financial budget when you're planning a trip?

VGS, as an example of many, give a few behaviours that you can change in your daily life to reduce your carbon impact, like buying local produce, setting your dishwasher and washing machine temperatures lower, eating a plant based diet, or walking, biking, or taking the train for your daily commute instead of driving.

These changes of behaviour not only help you to quickly save up points in your carbon budget, they also mean you are developing better habits in your life, which will have a much farther reaching and longer term impact than simply paying a donation to have your carbon based "sins" absolved. But then again, why not both?

By far, the best impact we can make is by coupling a low carbon footprint life with properly researched carbon offsetting donations. It might be hard to spare the money here and there to balance our impact, but it would be even more cost savvy and environmentally conscious to not buy those plane tickets in the first place, so a percentage on top of our plane tickets as penance, put into the right place, might just be the ticket to a more carbon neutral life.

By Anna Cole

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