What are Carbon Offsets?

What are Carbon Offsets?

I recently went on my honeymoon to St. Lucia and it was gorgeous! The problem? I had to take a plane to get there. Now, mind you, I’m not an avid flyer. The last time I flew was ~13 years ago. But since it was my honeymoon, a once in a lifetime event, I decided to go for it. All that being said, planes have a huge carbon footprint and create lots of emissions. Which led me into thinking “maybe I can purchase some carbon offsets?” to balance out my time flying. Well unfortunately after doing some research, the answer to that isn’t so straight forward. Here’s what carbon offsets are and my thoughts on if you should consider purchasing them.

What are Carbon Offsets?

How do carbon offsets work?

Carbon offsets work by funding specific projects that either lower CO2 emissions, or take some CO2 out of the atmosphere (aka carbon sequestering). By purchasing a carbon offset, you’re attempting to neutralize the carbon you’ve dished out by supporting projects that sequester carbon or build a more renewable (less fossil fuel powered) future.

Some examples of carbon offset projects include tree planting (aka reforestation), building renewable energy or supporting regenerative, carbon-storing farming practices.

Many people purchase carbon offsets to make up for their air travel. But here’s the irony: Most of the planet-warming effects of flying aren’t from carbon dioxide. They’re from burning jet fuel.

According to Grist, “Burning jet fuel at 35,000 feet sparks a molecular cascade in the troposphere. The initial combustion releases a shower of particles — sulfur, nitrogen oxides, soot, and water vapor. At those frigid heights, some of the particles become nuclei around which condensation gathers and then quickly freezes, helping to produce puffy contrails that either vanish or persist as wispy, high-altitude cirrus clouds. In the presence of the sun’s rays, nitrogen molecules set of a chain of reactions that produce ozone and destroy free-floating atmospheric methane. It’s tough to pin down the meaning of all this chemistry…It all depends on the atmospheric conditions for each flight, multiplied across tens of thousands of planes streaking across the sky each day.”

Grist, continue, “In an analysis published last year, an international team of researchers pinned 3.5 percent of total warming in 2011 on aviation alone — which may sound small, but the number has been growing fast.”

This means the aviation industry needs to put a heavier focus on “climate-neutral” alternatives. That would include more efficient flying, low-carbon fuels and batteries, and more intensive efforts to remove CO2 from there beyond canceling out aviation CO2 emissions.

Do carbon offsets actually work?

Carbon offsets work to some extent, if done correctly. You have to make sure you’re purchasing them from a valid, trustworthy source that will use the money you’re giving them correctly.

Plus, while many airlines now offer to offset your emissions by giving you the choice to pay a little extra, it’s not a perfect solution.

A number of investigations have found that many of the offset programs airlines partner with chronically overestimate the amount of carbon they successfully store. And again, those schemes are all about carbon, not the other pollutants that air travel brings.

That said, do I hate the idea of carbon offsets? No. I do think we should be supporting innovative projects that sequester carbon (even if you haven’t flown recently), like reforestation or protecting wetlands.

But we need to be doing more, and airlines know that. United Airlines, for example, is working to switch from carbon offsets to more robust carbon removal strategies to meet its 2050 carbon-neutrality goal. They’re also working towards more sustainable jet fuel options.

Are carbon offsets greenwashing?

Carbon offsets certainly can be greenwashing. One example is how Shell misled customers with a carbon-offsetting campaign that promised carbon-neutral fossil fuels for drivers. 

According to Grist, the campaign, “Drive CO2 Neutral,” told customers they can pay one extra cent per liter of gasoline to completely offset their vehicle’s carbon emissions by funding conservation projects in Canada, Peru, and Indonesia. However, the advertising committee found that Shell could not prove it was fully offsetting the emissions from its gasoline.

Not too surprising, since they’re a part of Big Oil, but still. This is proof you have to be wary of greenwashing with carbon offsetting schemes.

And, as we talked about before with aviation, carbon is not the only pollutant to be wary of. And it certainly isn’t the only greenhouse gas (methane is actually more potent than CO2!). So keep this in mind before purchasing carbon offsets.

Me attending a tree planting event! Planting trees is NOT easy but so rewarding.

So what’s the solution?

If carbon offsetting is as controversial as it sounds, you may be wondering what the solution is, right? Here’s what I can tell you, based on my own research.

  • Fly less. This is a big one that creates a lasting impact. I know not everyone can abide by this (business trips, seeing friends + family, etc.), but choosing to fly less is overall the best choice for the planet.
  • Advocate for the aviation industry to push toward renewable, sustainable solutions. Keep up to date on the latest developments and always support legislation that would create better flying for the planet. We can do this by voting people in who have strong climate policy and an action plan for implementing it, both in presidential elections, and local elections.
  • For offsetting options, consider donating to projects that promote carbon sequestering, or help build renewable energy technology. I find knowing where your money is going is the best bet. Donating to legit tree planting projects or non-profits working to protect rainforests are good choices. Some amazing organizations include Rainforest Action NetworkRainforest Alliance and Amazon Watch. No matter how much you’re able to give, every little bit helps. I personally love Rainforest Action Network because they give the option to literally protect an acre of rainforest with your donation. 
    – Don’t forget to check out local tree planting events, and consider planting a tree in your yard!
    – I also love donating to the Arbor Day Foundation, which has a number of forestry carbon credits, reforestation projects, and rainforest rescue missions. Every dollar plants a tree!
    – I adore the idea of donating to/buying from a small, local + regenerative farm! Healthy soil sequesters carbon from the atmosphere after all.
  • Donate to news sources like Grist, which reports on climate, justice and solutions (without pay walls). You can keep up to date on how the aviation industry is switching to sustainable alternatives, along with updates on renewable energy, and much much more.
  • Live a sustainable lifestyle. Simple, but efficient. You can start here.

So, what do you think of carbon offsets? Let me know in the comments!

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By Ariana Storniolo (Palmieri)

Ariana Storniolo is the founder of Greenify-Me, a blog dedicated to zero waste and sustainability. Her work has also been featured on Going Zero Waste, Green Matters, Mother Earth Living and several other online publications.

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