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

04.22.19 3 months ago


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.

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