Is carbon offsetting just massaging your ego?

We think we can all agree that the planet is pretty awesome, and we want to do our best to look after it. But the information about how we do that isn’t always clear.

One of the things that often comes up, especially for those of us who love to travel, and therefore have a tricky love/hate relationship with aeroplanes, is carbon offsetting. Lots of big companies do it but there’s some controversy over both its effectiveness and the credentials of different schemes.  So is it worth doing, or is it just a way of massaging our egos and appeasing our guilt?

What is carbon offsetting?

The idea is to reduce carbon emissions in one area of what we’re doing to compensate for emissions made elsewhere. In terms of travel, some airlines have carbon offset programmes. That means you pay an extra fee on top of the flight cost which is then donated to a carbon offset scheme. Typically, they will contribute either to a forestry scheme - that’s planting trees to you and me - or energy projects, which invest in renewable technologies.

However, like we said, there’s some discrepancy and a certain amount of skepticism about the way carbon offset schemes are calculated and run by airlines.  So some prefer to take control and do something more directly. Programmes like Gold Standard seem to be getting a good rep. It’s a Swiss non-profit founded by a group of environmental groups and NGOs including the WWF. Meanwhile, Climate Care in the UK is also popular. Taking the matter into your own hands is also great if you want to offset flights you’ve already taken.

Does carbon offsetting work?

The honest answer? The jury’s out.

On the one hand, let’s be honest, it’s better not to have the carbon emissions in the first place. In terms of industry in general, that’s the message coming from the likes of CHOOOSE, an official partner of the United Nations.

They buy carbon credits, which companies purchase to offset their industry’s carbon emissions. When they buy them, CHOOOSE deletes them, reducing the number available and making it more and more expensive for companies to get hold of them. They also have options where individuals (as well as businesses) can fund the best UN-verified CO2-reducing projects in developing countries by paying a little each month.

The message? They think carbon offsetting is a bandage solution that makes us feel better without looking at the root cause of the problem.

On the other hand, doing something is better than doing nothing. Especially when you consider that most flights are probably going to take off, whether you are on them or not… unless there’s a mass protest. There’s something to be said for ‘every little helps’, and if we’re all making proactive steps to plant more trees and fund projects that look into longer term solutions, then it can only be a good thing.

What else can I do?

All that said, it doesn’t mean we can’t take a bit more control in the little things we do personally when we travel.

There are a number of carbon footprint calculators out there where you can try to understand more about the impact your lifestyle and travel has on the environment. There seems to be some dispute about how it’s calculated, so we suggest trying a couple to get an overall idea. The WWF has one that comes recommended, and Carbon Footprint’s is free, popular and easy to use.

Of course, environmentally friendly travel is about lots of things and not just CO2. We’ve got some helpful tips on how to be a little more green wherever you go, from how to give back to local communities to how to choose a green hotel. In terms of how you travel however, there is still stuff you can do to reduce your carbon footprint rather than simply offset it.

The biggie is being mindful about how often you fly, and whether or not you can travel differently. For example, a return trip from London to Paris return would produce 110kg of CO2 by plane versus 6.6kg by train. Taking a direct flight instead of one with a stopover is also more efficient.

You can also make conscious decisions about who you fly with. Believe it or not, the airline you fly with makes a difference to your emissions. Lower impact airlines usually have more modern, fuel-efficient planes and carry more passengers. There’s some helpful advice on who’s best on Atmosfair (including an advised person CO2 annual ‘budget’), with TUI coming out amongst the best overall. Nonetheless, it’s important to add that even the best is still not great as far as the environment goes.

So what’s the conclusion?

Carbon offsetting is great, but it’s not so great that we should stop considering other ways to look after the environment when we travel. For our part, obviously we like a good holiday/adventure, so we’re never going to suggest not flying at all. But maybe part of the excitement can be considering alternative ways of travelling and doing our bit. After all, CO2 is both a product of and a threat to tourism, and we want to keep enjoying travel forever, so it’s in our interests to do what we can in more ways than one.



Harry Williams

Harry Williams

Product person, design devotee, travel lover.