Is carbon offsetting truly cancelling out our emissions, or just our own guilt?
By dictionary definition, a ‘Carbon Offset’ is ‘an action or activity (such as the planting of trees or carbon sequestration) that compensates for the emission of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere’ – a bit like when you upset your partner so, to make up for it, you buy a bunch of flowers on the way home. However, instead, you’ve upset the planet, so need to invest in a programme that, say, plants trees in Nicaragua in order to balance out any damage caused.
An example of this is aviation, responsible for 2% of global carbon emissions. Offsetting is usually associated with plane travel for a reason. A roundtrip flight from London Gatwick to JFK airport in New York releases 1.8 tonnes of carbon – more than an individual in Paraguay or Burundi emits in an entire year. In order to offset this carbon, you can pay a mere £39.00 from the same site to compensate for the damage. Forget Flygskam – someone better go fetch Greta and let her know!
According to the International Carbon Reduction and Offset Alliance, ‘Carbon offset projects make a valuable contribution to the reduction of GHG emissions’. Current tools that estimate the value of the offset required largely focus on emissions from aviation, but who’s to say they can’t be developed for other activities – offsets for having steak for dinner, or turning the heating on in September.
Despite Greta’s reluctance to hop on a flight herself, it would seem that her noble decision is increasing the guilt people experience around their own. According to The Guardian, NGOs that support offset schemes have seen a ‘Greta Thunberg Effect’, where in some cases their number of donations has increased four times over.
However, if this all seems too good to be true, it’s because it probably is. According to a 2017 study, 85% of carbon offsetting schemes used by the EU failed to actually reduce any carbon. The same report revealed that carbon offsets may have actually increased carbon, as companies don’t lower their emissions directly and instead rely on offset schemes – 98% of which are a waste of time, according to the same 2017 study.
It would therefore seem that offsets are more like a get-out-of-jail-free card. The fact carbonoffset.com gives the option of downloading a personalised certificate after purchasing with them is perhaps evidence of this, and raises questions about the motivations of the company and their customers. Given the scale of the crisis we are facing, surely donating 1% of your plane ticket cost to a sustainable initiative that will attempt to undo some of the damage done doesn’t require a piece of paper as motivation or validation. Besides, who would actually display a carbon offsetting certificate anywhere in their home?
Unfortunately, this does mean that, despite Elton John’s valiant attempts at defending him through his purchase of offsets, Prince Harry was indeed a hypocrite for flying in a private jet to Nice, and everyone else making themselves feel better about their recent longhaul flight through donating more efficient cooking stoves to people in Kenya are just kidding themselves. Activities that emit tonnes of carbon are contributing to global warming – and whilst no harm can be done by increasing funding for sustainable projects globally, that alone is not going to make hopping on a plane any less terrible for the planet.