Carbon offsetting: everything you’ve always wanted to know

Most people have heard of carbon offsetting; the concept of paying to have your carbon emissions absorbed and therefore your carbon footprint reduced. Yet how many can claim to use it? Actually, how many people can even confidently explain how it works? The good news is, we’ve done the hard work for you. Dive into this guide to carbon offsetting and allow us to hold your hand on a journey towards informed and effective environmental decision making.

Conscious travel habits

Imagine. You’re a fan of slow travel and a seasoned nomad. You’ve touched down in Los Angeles where you’ll be spending the next three weeks. You seek out a place to stay in proximity to the beach, and in walking distance to the city centre where you enjoy eating out and visiting secondhand stores. You pinpoint a place to practice some yoga, sort out a travel card for the local public transport and find a wholesome little supermarket, offering a great range of vegan products and packaging-free groceries. You’ve set up the ideal set of circumstances for your sustainable trip, and you’re feeling positive about your environmentally influenced choices. You should be proud too; throughout a year of perpetual travel, you prevent the following carbon dioxide emissions due to your consumer behaviour:

Carbon offsets from lifestyle choices

So many of us are admirably eating less meat, cycling to work instead of driving, and choosing to buy from environmentally friendly businesses. And indeed, avoiding carbon emissions by changing your consumer behaviour – home or away – is the best way to reduce your impact on the environment. However, what about the tonnes of carbon emissions we unwillingly or unavoidably release into the atmosphere as a result of living a modern-day lifestyle? How should we deal with those? 

The discrepancy

For example, heading for a year of international travel you choose to go car-less, saving 2.6 tonnes of CO2 throughout the year. But what about the flight from London to Los Angeles you took last week? And what about the flight you took from Sydney to London two months before that? Flights, producing sizeable amounts of CO2 that haul up your carbon footprint within a matter of hours, are far too significant to be ignored.

With a vegan diet reducing your yearly footprint by a tonne, but your flight from Sydney to London increasing it by 1.23 tonnes, we hit a problem. According to The International Air Transport Association (IATA) only 1% of passengers voluntarily offset their carbon emissions for a flight. If you found that statistic sobering, you’ll be bowled over by the idea that a flight from London to Los Angeles costs around 600USD one way, whilst the cost to offset can be a staggeringly low 15.55USD. At Sustainable Guides, we think this deserves attention.

What if next time you land in a new city, you grab your accommodation, seek out the vegan-friendly restaurants, find the local eco-friendly businesses as you normally would. But in addition, you take the step to create a new travel habit: allowing yourself ten minutes on your phone, to offset the carbon released by your time in the air. Why not normalise carbon offsetting as an integral part of your travel habits?

Unsure where to find the right information? Skeptical of the concept? You’ve come to the right place.

What is carbon offsetting?

Put simply, a carbon offset is a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions (or other greenhouse gases) made as a way to compensate for emissions released somewhere else in the world. Measured in tonnes of CO2, carbon offsets are purchased by businesses, governments or even individuals as a way to mitigate their emissions. 

In other words, if you’re the CEO of a company in the United States and you calculated that your company released 20 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere in 2019, you might choose to pay a company based in Nicaragua to ‘offset’ 20 tonnes of CO2.

As an individual and a traveller, you might decide to buy carbon offsets after you take a transatlantic flight or a long bus journey across Europe. First, you’d work out the amount of carbon dioxide released from your trip using an online calculator. Next, armed with your stats, you’d go on to pay the company of your choice to offset this exact amount of carbon. Payment received, your carbon footprint for this trip is technically ‘neutralised’. But how?

How does carbon offsetting work?

Carbon offsetting might sound complicated, and in many ways it is. However, grasping a general idea of how it works is easy and doesn’t require a degree in environmental science.

Carbon dioxide can be absorbed by trees and plants. Accordingly, one of the most common and traditional ways to offset your carbon involves paying a company to plant trees. It’s as simple as that. There are companies out there which accept your money and provide the service of planting trees. Plus, since climate change is a non-localised problem – with carbon dioxide spread throughout the atmosphere – paying someone to plant trees in Brazil after your flight from London to Berlin is absolutely effective.

Planting trees in the Amazon or restoring Indonesian mangrove forests is one way of offsetting carbon. However, in the same way that a tree is planted to absorb CO2, a second way of offsetting carbon dioxide, comes in the form of paying a company to prevent deforestation. Funding the protection of rainforests that would otherwise be destroyed is a completely valid way of offsetting your carbon dioxide emissions, as long as you can trust the permanence and reliability of the project.

There’s absolutely no point paying for the protection of a portion of the Amazon rainforest, which then goes on to be cut down five years later. It’s also somewhat dubious to pay for the protection of ten square kilometres of rainforest in Malaysia, only to find that the owners of the land go about destroying the surrounding rainforest rapidly and with greater rigour.

Finally, a third way that carbon offsetting projects operate, is through avoidance of future carbon dioxide emissions (or the emission of other greenhouses gases). For example, some offsetting projects work with the social aspects of climate change. Assisting developing nations with the installation of energy efficient lightbulbs, or helping to introduce cleaner-burning cookstoves are both valid ways in which to prevent future emissions.

Of course, in these cases you have to take into account the idea that work being carried out is truly ‘additional’. In other words, if you help pay for a wind farm in India to go about its daily operations, your money is not being used to directly offset carbon. In fact, you’re just helping to pay for what is already up and running, or ‘business as usual’.

When it comes to carbon offsetting, there is no wrong answer. In fact a combination of carbon offsetting strategies can only be positive. Our planet needs more trees, it needs its rainforests protected and it also aches for greener development strategies. However, what you may have figured out by now, is that the extent to which a company is trustworthy and effective in offsetting carbon is vital. Let us help you out with that.

How to make sure you’re funding a reliable project

Once you decide to offset your carbon footprint for the flight from London to Los Angeles, you’ll find that there are a whole host of companies online to choose from. But how can you ensure that you’re funding a trustworthy project which also fits your personal values? After all, if you’re paying for offsets based in Nicaragua and you live in Sydney, you’re not able to oversee a project, or witness the impact of your dollars.

The easiest way to find out whether a carbon offsetting company or organisation is reliable, is to choose a company, head to the website and seek out information regarding its standards and certifications. Over the years, a number of third party certifications for carbon offsets have emerged, helping you to engage with the right projects all over the world.

Gold Standard

Although there are a great deal of these third party quality-assurers, Gold Standard remains a n excellent marker of quality in the field. Established by WWF in 2003, Gold Standard has worked with around 80 NGOs and 1400 projects, helping to offer the public assurance regarding the efficacy of carbon offsetting projects.

Other third parties

Having said this, there are a number of other agencies to look out for. Just because a carbon offsetting company isn’t certified by Gold Standard specifically, doesn’t mean it’s not trustworthy. As you browse the certifications on an organisation’s website, keep your eyes open for the following:

Tip: If a company or organisation is certified with one of the above, they will in most cases present it proud, loud and clear on their website. Take a look at two examples of excellent carbon offsetting companies: Sustainable Travel and Atmosfair and you’ll find a list of certifications.

Recommendations from Sustainable Guides

There are a number of companies with which to offset your carbon footprint, but at Sustainable Guides we recommend the following (in no particular order):

  1. Sustainable Travel
  2. Atmosfair
  3. Native Energy
  4. Carbon Offsets to Alleviate Poverty
  5. My Climate
  6. Cool Effect
  7. Carbon Fund

Whilst this list might seem overwhelming, a benefit of the plethora of organisations and subsequent projects, is that to an extent you are free to choose a project in line with your own passions or beliefs. Choose Carbon Offsets to Alleviate Poverty and you’ll be funding forestry projects which offer life-changing jobs to some of the poorest communities. Alternatively, opt for Native Energy and buy offsets in renewable energy and the regenerative agriculture. In some cases, such as with Cool Effect, you are able to browse specific projects and directly choose the one you’d prefer to support.

Making carbon offsetting part of your travel routine

The good news is, if you’re making changes to your life for the benefit of the planet, you’re already doing the hard work. Carbon offsetting is quick and painless and the missing puzzle piece to your responsible travel habits.

By no means should carbon offsetting encourage you to fly more often or to ditch your well established responsible consumer behaviours. But embed carbon offsetting into your travel habits – just as you currently book a hotel or pay for a flight – and you’ll be doing a much more effective job in reducing your carbon footprint and contributing to the health of the planet.

2 responses to “Carbon offsetting: everything you’ve always wanted to know”

  1. Excellent article. Carbon offsetting made simple. One question. Many if not most airlines allow you to pay to offset at the same time as you book your flight. Are the schemes they use to be trusted?

    1. Jessica Beaumont Avatar
      Jessica Beaumont

      Hi Niall!

      Thanks for your nice comment! You’re right, some airlines do offer a carbon offsetting option when you pay. Others don’t. After a quick search I found that British Airways partners with “Leapfrog”, which is Gold Standard certified. Lufthansa partners with “MyClimate”, also mentioned in the article as a positive example. Unfortunately, some airlines such as Ryanair have been accused of lacking transparency regarding where their money goes. At some point they started offering a one pound offsetting fee, which was collected and distributed across a variety of NGOs each year. This then becomes more of a charitable donation rather than a direct offsetting practice. In cases where you don’t trust the company I think it’s always better to choose your favourite site and stick to donating there!

      However, some of the airlines (including Emirates for example) that don’t offer an offsetting option at checkout are actually trying to take the responsibility away from the customer and do it all themselves! This is of course a great thing, but it seems as though this is more of a target, and it is not clear yet whether this is being implemented across all flights. British Airways offset all of their domestic flights, meaning you don’t have to.

      There’s no easy answer, but it seems like a bit of research can go a long way when booking your flight 🙂

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