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Carbon offset for traveling

We want to be sustainable and mindful of our impact on the environment whilst also traveling and seeing the beauty the planet has to offer. Carbon offsetting seems like a reasonable option, but what does it actually do?

Sunrise on a SKP-LDN flight. Credits: Asanté Boyce


As the planet continues to experience harmful effects of the alarming levels of global scale carbon emissions, climate change has become a top priority for the global community. As a result many initiatives, regulations and programs have been put in place in order to ensure carbon emissions are reduced globally. Included in these initiatives have been economic incentives such as carbon offsetting. There has been much discourse surrounding carbon offsetting and its role in ensuring the reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions. While carbon offsetting initially appears a promising tool in the fight against climate change, what exactly is it and does it work in practice as it sounds on paper?

What is carbon offsetting?

At its core carbon offsetting is a means in which individuals and companies are able to 'neutralize' and compensate their portion of carbon emissions. A common example of this is within the aviation industry. Individuals that wish to offset their portion of carbon emissions as a result of their travels will usually have the option to pay a small fee at the checkout to donate to an organisation that will offset their emissions through different eco-initiatives. Carbon offsetting is one tool that is used within the action for climate change and offers many individuals and companies to get directly involved with reducing their carbon footprint.

Voluntary vs Mandatory Offsetting

There are two different types of carbon offsetting: voluntary and mandatory (compliance) markets. Voluntary markets allows different companies and individuals to opt for carbon offset activities through purchase on a voluntary basis, not because there is any compliance requirements. On the other hand, mandatory (compliance) markets are regulated by national, international and regional schemes for carbon reduction and offsetting. Compliance markets exist to ensure that participants are regulated against limits and mandated caps on their permitted levels of yearly emissions. These caps and regulations are legally binding, thus providing the stark difference between voluntary and mandatory markets. Some of the most prominent names in the compliance market are the Emission Trading Scheme (EU) and the United Nations Clean Development Mechanism.

Within the realm of voluntary markets, aviation companies are significantly involved in carbon offsetting schemes. There are a number of reasons for this including the movement towards Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) as well as environmental considerations. The aviation industry is a key participant in carbon offsetting initiatives as it allows the general population to be able to engage in 'sustainable tourism'. Alike many other industries, much pressure is being placed on the travel and tourism industry for its growing contributions to the emission of greenhouse gases (GHG). According to The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), "transport related emissions from tourism represented 5% of all man-made emissions in 2016", with this figure being predicted to rise to 5.3% by 2030. Another critical figure highlights that in 2016 transport emissions from tourism represented 22% of all transport emissions. These figures illustrate the role the travel and tourism industry (in which aviation is so integral) plays within the staggering increase in GHG emissions responsible for the planetary crisis that is climate change.

Companies such as EasyJet, British Airways and Delta offer customers the option (usually at the checkout) to purchase carbon offsets. This purchase is usually done through the premise of a donation to a certified carbon offsetting organisation. Such organisation perhaps support the restoration of forests, development of clean water supply or the building of wind power plants. The planting of trees is a common 'supplement' in this transaction due to their ability to absorb CO2, thus adopted to counteract carbon emissions from the flight plans of the customer.

Airplane with natural scenery. Credits: WIX


Does it work in practice?

The practice of carbon offsetting remains widely disputed for several reasons, one of these being the focus it removes from the priority of reducing global greenhouse emissions. In promoting the purchase and adoption of carbon offsetting activities, individuals and companies imagine that they have in fact made the harmful emissions that come as a result of their activities non-existent. This removes the individual or company from recognizing other global outputs of emissions they partake in. The practice of offsetting ones carbon output may impact ones understanding of the necessity to reduce such activities overall. While a promising initiative and tool in reducing global GHG emissions, carbon offsetting is critiqued on overshadowing the need for a commitment to lifestyle changes.

Another problematic detail of carbon offsetting is the lack of credibility in the initiatives that are tasked with the actual offsetting. This comes widely due to the a lack of transparency in the regulations and measurement of the proposed reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Particularly within the voluntary market providers often implement and follow their own regimes of validation that is not always clearly shared. In relation to credibility, scholars have critiqued the motivations for purchasing carbon offsets as it can often be adopted as a means of protecting an 'image' of being a contributor to the environment, thus perpetuating 'greenwashing'.

Presenting and discussing such criticisms of carbon offsetting is not to disregard its capability entirely. Contrary, its intention and premise can be quite instrumental in reducing the harmful outputs of GHG emissions. Rather such critiques are to ensure the focus is not shifted from the necessity of adopting as many methods and lifestyle changes to combat carbon emissions and climate change.

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