I fly two or three times a year, a huge source of emissions. I try to minimize my environmental impact, but I have to fly for work, I'm not going to stop visiting my family, and if I don't get out of Paris every now and then, I go crazy. I know what a privilege I have being able to get away from the stress of the city, and I don't take it lightly- but I still haven't bought a carbon offset in eight years (UPDATE: I now do Carbotax).
Many climate experts believe placing a price on carbon is one of the best incentives for a nation, company, or individual to reduce emissions. Responsible buyers can then manage the timing and cost of reducing their carbon footprint. Offsetting projects offer a host of social benefits, like distributing curved solar collectors and providing safe water for rural Ugandan communities. However, some worry this leaves little incentive to reduce fossil fuel use and develop or adopt cleaner technology. Carbon offsets, they argue, mislead polluters into thinking they don't need to make meaningful lifestyle changes, since they can just pay others to undo their environmental harm. Critics fear the singular focus such programs place on CO2, which accounts for only half of manmade greenhouse gas emissions, may undercut efforts to reduce other GHGs, like methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, and perfluorocarbons.
|Source: US EPA|
Part of the controversy around some offset programs stems from a failure to show GHG reductions additional to what happens anyway. For instance, marketers claim certain projects, such as capturing methane gas at landfill sites, would not take place without financing from offset schemes, when lawmakers already require those landfill owners to capture emissions. The carbon offset market is largely unregulated, with no clearly defined standards for pricing, transparency, or offset types. Private verification companies have a vested interest in certifying reductions, while the Clean Development Mechanism executive board is not equipped to verify all claims.
I stopped buying offsets when I learned how tree planting programs- which aren't popular anymore- introduced non-native species to vulnerable areas, disrupting local water supplies and ecosystems. Some programs used formerly forested land or funded commercial tree plantations, for which large areas of native forest and populations were displaced. Worst of all, the Clean Development Mechanism-approved Plantar project awarded credits for using a low-carbon process to turn trees into charcoal. Even the best forest offset programs were not immune to wildfires or logging, making it difficult to measure or sustain reductions. Today, high-quality options exist for consumers wishing to protect themselves from fraudulent or risky carbon offsets, like Voluntary Gold Standard and Verified Carbon Standard. These nonprofits subject projects to a rigorous screening process, verifying all economic, social, and environmental benefits. Not only are you assured your money is financing something good, you get to see exactly how it's working and how much carbon you've saved.
|Source: Buildings Energy Data Book, US Department of Energy|
The main reason I don't buy offsets now- which isn't to say others shouldn't- is because greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide in particular, are produced not just from airplane rides but routine activities, like watching TV, using appliances, leaving the modem on all night, driving a car, or blogging. I should support social / economic / environmentally beneficial programs anyway, regardless of whether I fly or not. Since I have time to work on volunteer projects myself, like turning an abandoned parking lot into a community garden or replanting native species, that's my preference. People are busy and similar programs might not exist locally, so others may decide offsets are better. Rather not pay for carbon credits? Though a study by MIT students found lifestyle changes have limited impact on energy use and emissions, environmentalists, behavioralists, and climate scientists generally recommend consumers shrink their footprint by:
- Insulating houses
- Reducing home water / energy usage: for instance, turning down the thermostat and putting on a sweater, using compact fluorescents, skipping the dryer, taking shorter showers, flushing less
- Driving less, carpooling, walking, biking, and using public transport
- Downsizing to smaller homes
- Buying less and buying secondhand
- Giving up bottled water, feedlot beef, and dairy
- Living in a large metropolitan area with high density, compact development, and working close to home
If people continue living high-carbon lifestyles, offsets counterbalance emissions at best. Travel is important to me, but I want to be responsible about it. My husband and I try not to vacation to keep up with friends, bloggers, and trends, instead taking holidays based on our interests or cultural values. We like to engage with the community and stay in sustainable lodging. There are plenty of ways to minimize our impact besides - and including- carbon offsets.