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Carbon offsets: paying our way to a healthier planet

One of the most pragmatic solutions to reducing our environmental footprint in recent years has
been the use of carbon offsets. The initiative involves consumers paying their way to offset the emissions associated with whatever purchase or activity they have done. You should think of it as a way of compensating the environment for the resources taken and harm inflicted through your purchasing decisions.

An early tool in the environmentalism movement, carbon offsetting gives consumers an actionable solution to their sustainability efforts. Take a flight and pay a small fee for your share of the carbon used in the form of carbon offsets, otherwise known as credits. We won’t go into too much depth with the science, but it’s important to know what we’re talking about the big players in the scientific arm of the conversation. Carbon dioxide is a gas that is commonly linked to environmental degradation, and is what is emitted from vehicles, planes, construction, manufacturing and many other things. It’s a greenhouse gas; a gas which aids in warming our planet and in keeping it warm. If we didn’t have these gases, Earth would theoretically freeze over and be unable to support any life forms. The issue is that, at our current rates of consumption and emissions, more and more greenhouse gasses are flooding our atmosphere to a point where it is becoming too warm. Alas, global warming.

That just about does it for the technical science jargon. We’d be remiss to not have a quick rundown of the difference between global warming and climate change, which are the two antagonists in the sustainability movement. While global warming is the literal interpretation of what is happening to our planet due to increased emissions, climate change is the subsequent resulting changes to our planet’s central make-up and behaviour. Global warming is rising temperatures, climate change is the combination of factors leading to making our planet uninhabitable—rising sea levels, droughts, famine, and all that other good stuff.

Carbon offsets pay for tree planting projects.
Photo by Vitor Monthay on Unsplash

The plight of any environmentalist is reducing their effects on the environment to slow the effects of global warming and, ultimately, climate change. Enter carbon offsetting, a way to give back to compensate for what you’ve taken. Companies will then use this money through various schemes, such as planting trees and clean energy projects. If you burn a bunch of jet fuel from Amsterdam to Shanghai to Perth, you can have peace of mind that in your carbon offsets you are curbing the quantified negative impact by offsetting it with positive efforts, initiatives, and projects.

This is where some confusion can come in. Is it really that easy to quantify the exact amount of carbon emissions I am responsible for in taking those flights? I mean, maybe there was a headwind that day that required more jet fuel, or the pilot had to circle the runway a few times before landing. Further down the line, maybe those trees you paid for planting to offset the emissions get swept away in an extreme weather event.

Consider Carbon emissions and carbon offsets when you fly.
Photo by SevenStorm JUHASZIMRUS from Pexels

Irony aside, these are really important questions to ask when learning about carbon offsetting. There is wide dissent on the effectiveness of this method, with critics pointing to the issue of companies actually following through with their promises and projects, as well as the sheer volume of offsets needed to make up for the actual degradation occurring. It’s also a pretty terrible metaphor in terms of the actual culpability of the issue: the large, wasteful, opaque corporations who are providing the goods or services that create the emissions should certainly be held to account for these emissions, shouldn’t they?

Both can be true. While large corporations have a huge role to play, it’s a basic economic principle that, in most cases, supply is generally driven by demand. We want air travel, so companies facilitate that, and that’s where the consumer must come in. You and I can make a difference for our slice of the pie, which will also encourage these companies to act more sustainably. This is perhaps a better metaphor to be using when drawing correlations between offsetting and who’s really at fault—let’s really champion carbon offsets to the extent that companies have no choice but to take greater strides towards making a difference. We can drive demand through purchasing these carbon offsets, which in turn should ensure the follow-through.

Carbon offsets can help counter factory emissions and global warming.
Photo by Loïc Manegarium from Pexels

A good thing we can do to hold companies accountable is to do our research. One of the world’s most popular and respected airlines, Air New Zealand, is a market leader in both air travel and offsetting schemes. They’re transparent, they make it easy to purchase when booking a flight, and they are constantly trying to educate their customers in this area. They also use external evaluators to hold them accountable. Speaking of third-party offsetting, CarbonClick is a great company whose work spans many industries including travel. They have their own stringent framework when assessing a company’s footprint and transfer this across to their projects and initiatives. You could almost liken these types of companies to charities; you choose a charity on their merits and efforts and are happy to support them because of these. Carbon offsetting should be no different in that you should be aligning yourself with entities who you trust are allocating the right kinds of resources and applying the most accurately quantifiable metrics.

If you can get around the ‘why’ for carbon offsets, the ‘who’ is where it gets really exciting. Perhaps you’re passionate about cleaning up pollution in the developing world. Regenerative agriculture might be what gets your wheels spinning, giving life to soil and providing land that can grow food effectively. There are projects and initiatives just like these that are being rolled out by organisations and companies all around the world, all in the name of offsetting our emissions. Find the right kinds of places with emphasis on the right kinds of projects and get stuck in. After all, what are we here for? We’re here to work towards a healthier planet by whatever means necessary. If that comes at a small cost which we can integrate into our purchasing decisions, then do it. We can continue to enjoy our planet while giving back.

Mitchell Winton-Smith
Mitchell is a multifaceted creative professional from New Zealand. Predominantly, he writes about people, planet, and products. Finding solutions to the climate crisis is one of his life's great passions. Favourite country, you ask? Japan. Hands down.