What Are Carbon Offsets And Should You Be Buying Them Before You Fly?


As a travel writer, I fly a lot. It’s part of the job and I enjoy it immensely. But in mid-March, I had a crisis of confidence: I was about to book my fifth flight this year alone, and I started to think about my carbon footprint. Air travel is a high-carbon-footprint activity, and U.S. airlines are especially guilty of pumping greenhouse gases into the environment. I started to question if a core part of my job was doing more harm than good.

I’m surely not alone (even on our staff) in worrying about this. Americans are flying more than ever. We need to take the environment into consideration, in ways large and small, and that includes when we travel. After my mid-March mini-breakdown, one of the ways I found to help me deal with my flight angst was to purchase carbon offsets — donations which help mitigate a person’s carbon footprint. Here’s how donation dollars can help you create an overall greener flight experience.

What are carbon offsets?

The simple answer: carbon offsets are donation programs that offset your carbon footprint when you know an activity you’re doing is creating greenhouse gas emissions. In short, they’re trade-off programs, wherein a consumer buys an offset credit that funds projects which reduce greenhouse gas emissions. For example, if you were to buy $10 in carbon offsets, the company would in turn take that $10 (minus whatever administrative fees they need to cover) to invest in programs like tree planting or other reforestation initiatives, renewable energy companies, or updating buildings to become more energy efficient.

It’s one way in which people are trying to go carbon neutral, which effectively means creating a lifestyle that does not pump anymore greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

These days, you’ll often see carbon offset program buy-ins offered by travel companies. One recent example? Tour company Natural Habitat Adventures, a carbon-neutral company, has announced that it’s going to start offsetting the carbon impact of its customers’ air travel by increasing their offsets by 300-400 percent. Even Amtrak is offering an option to buy a carbon offset when you buy your train ticket.

Do they actually help? And does this mean I can just go carbon-crazy?

Yes, they really do help. Per Scientific American, a 2017 study of a California carbon offset project showed a “genuine reduction” in carbon emissions. One important aspect of the study: researchers studied “whether [the companies’] emissions reductions would have occurred without the financial incentives provided by the sale of offset credits.” And lo and behold, they would not have occurred without these carbon offset programs. In other words, offsets work, and they cover ground that wouldn’t have otherwise been covered.

That said, carbon offsets are not a substitute for making long-term changes to your daily life. Carbon offset programs don’t magically make the carbon produced by traveling go away; rather they try to minimize the damage of putting that carbon into the atmosphere.

So, should I invest in carbon offsets?

Yes, especially if you’re a frequent traveler. To put things into perspective, according to Sustainable Travel International, “A round trip flight from New York City to London produces just over 2.5 tons of carbon emissions. That’s over half the amount of carbon that the average person produces in year – just from one round trip flight.”

An easy way to do this? Opt-in whenever airlines or other travel-related companies offer offsets when you’re about to buy a flight, a trip, or other related expense.

One thing to keep in mind: the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, a 2018 UN agreement, will require all airlines that fly internationally to offset any extra emissions per UN guidelines by 2021, which is why you don’t see an option to buy an offset credit on several airline websites that once included it.

Fear not: You can subscribe independently to the company of your choice.

How do I figure out which companies to trust?

Research, research, research. Spend a few weeks digging through stacks of information, then give yourself a day or two to synthesize, maybe talk to an expert…

Nah, just kidding. It’s pretty easy to figure out which companies are legit and which aren’t. For instance, large companies which are already buying carbon offsets will most likely let you know, due in large part to the fact that it’s good for their image. One example: in 2018, ride-sharing service Lyft announced that they had started a carbon offset program which made them “one of the top 10 voluntary purchasers of carbon offsets on the planet” and made all of their rides carbon neutral.

If you want to start a monthly subscription to a company of your choosing, first, ask yourself: what kinds of programs do I want to contribute to? Renewable energy? Reforestation? Sustainable agriculture? Updating buildings to become more eco-friendly? If you have an idea of what you’re interested in funding, then make sure their website offers answers to some of the following questions (courtesy of Climate Care):

  • How long have you been established in the carbon offset market?
  • What types and locations of projects do you work with? How do you find projects to work with?
  • What guarantees can you offer that these programs are long-term? (E.g. for reforestation projects, it’s important to make sure that if you’re giving money to a farmer to maintain his trees, that this is a binding agreement, not, say, a 6-month contract after which he can slash and burn.)
  • Do you develop your own projects?
  • Are you members of the International Carbon Reduction and Offset Alliance? (This one is very important. Per Climate Care, this body “sets strict codes of guidance for members” and will give you a decent idea of whether or not they’re legit.)

This seems like a lot, but it’s really not. Any legitimate carbon offset program will freely offer up this information on their website.

If you’re still kind of like, ahhhh, information overload, here’s a place to start: I myself am subscribed to Native Energy, a Native American-owned company, representing approximately 15 tribes in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Wyoming, which runs environmental and sustainability-focused programs. Previous projects include bringing clean water to Ethiopia and investing in Native American-owned sustainable farms.

Another good choice? Atmosfair, a German company which is specifically focused on lowering the impact of air travel and is extremely transparent about how their business works.