I don’t know about you, but I am in the group of people that flies a fair amount. Part of it is work related, part of it is family related (I live in a different country than my parents), and recently part of it is love related (my partner lives in a different country).
“Flight shame” has increased significantly over the last year, with airlines worried it will affect sales in the coming years. I certainly feel shame every time I book a flight because I know I am contributing to the climate emergency. But here is the problem: I am not ready to commit to not flying yet.
I know this is hypocritical to say, but in the spirit of being open and vulnerable, I want to be 100% honest. I know that over the next few years I will still be taking airplanes to travel. I plan to be more conscious about it and choose alternative options when I can, but there will still be planes involved.
So what does that mean from a sustainability perspective? I need to offset my emissions.
Carbon offsetting is when an individual (or corporation) invests in a project that reduces carbon emissions, such as tree planting or renewable energy, in order to balance out his/her own environmental footprint.
Carbon offsetting isn’t the answer to the climate emergency because it isn’t changing underlying behaviours that pollute our planet. However, while we are in the process of adjusting our individual behaviours, and while government and business sets up a society where low or zero carbon options are readily available and accessible for all, offsetting can help.
The 3 Steps for Offsetting
Step 1: Calculate your impact – how much do you need to offset?
The first step for offsetting is figuring out what your environmental impact is. As we are talking about travel right now, I will focus on that. However, you can calculate the carbon footprint of anything, from the food that you eat to the products that you purchase.
For travel-related emissions, there are many online calculators available to help you understand how many kilograms of CO2 emissions your travel has contributed. The type of cabin class you take affects your footprint (business class for example has a higher impact than economy), as well as how far you travelled. Here are a couple of calculators you can use to see the impact of your flights:
Once you have the kilograms of CO2 that you need to offset, you are ready for step two.
Step 2: Pick your project – what will you invest it?
Once you start looking into carbon offsetting, you will realise that your options are endless. You can invest in reforestation projects, agriculture projects, renewable energy projects, clean stovetop projects, even female empowerment projects! So where do you look to find projects and how do you pick?
There is no magical formula to help you decide which project is more worthy. There also isn’t one website to go to – there are many.
If you are going to offset, first of all make sure the project is certified. Certification is important because it ensures that the projects are not scams, and that the results of the project are measurable and quantifiable. The key offsetting certification schemes are the Gold Standard, Verra’s Verified Carbon Standard, Plan Vivo or The Climate, Community and Biodiversity Association (CCBA).
Websites that offer certified offsets for individuals to purchase:
A few other things to consider:
- Additionality – make sure the project is adding value. For example, if you support a reforestation effort that would have happened anyway because it is in a key tourist destination, that project does not have additionality
- Quantifiable – make sure the project impact can be quantified and measured
Step 3: Purchase the offset
Step three is pretty self-explanatory but once you have your project, you purchase it! Some aviation companies offer carbon setting through their own website or do it on your behalf. In other cases, you will need to purchase them yourself through a certified offset provider.
One thing to note is that carbon pricing is currently quite low, so offsetting doesn’t break your bank account. That is part of the reason why behaviour hasn’t shifted away from carbon-polluting activities. When the sticks and carrots aren’t in place to change behaviour, people (myself included) continue business as usual. As carbon pricing shifts to a better representation of the cost, it is highly likely that carbon offsets will get more and more expensive.
One last tip: reforestation programs aren’t necessarily the best offsetting option! It takes decades for trees to reach the maturity needed to collect the CO2 emissions the project promises, and it is also difficult to ensure that the forest will still be there in future decades to reach that potential. The methodology underlying how the impact of forestry offsetting is calculated is not standardised, and includes high rates of uncertainty, deviation and inconsistency. Environmental experts recommend either supporting wetland restoration projects or supporting projects that advance renewable energy and have a social impact too.
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