Do You Find Carbon Offsets Off-Putting?

Candice Gaukel Andrews by Candice Gaukel Andrews | March 11th, 2009 | 12 Comments
topic: Eco Travel, Green Living

carbon_13I’ll admit that math has never been my best subject. But I have a pretty good grasp of its basic concepts — and I wonder if the relatively new phenomenon of “carbon offsets” adds up.

Like everyone else who cares about the environment and the slippery path we’re on, I’d like to think that I can reverse some of the damage that my presence on Earth causes. By contributing to a carbon offset program when I travel, I’m told, I can sort of “erase” the ill effects to the atmosphere that my very trip is causing. In short, I can buy my way out of any eco-guilt for my journeys.

It works like this: Automobiles and airplanes emit carbon dioxide (CO2), a big contributor to global warming. Statistics show that jet engines spew out about 3.5 percent of the world’s human-generated carbon dioxide; autos about 15 percent. However, traveling by air isn’t necessarily better than a trip by car; releasing greenhouse gases such as CO2 at high altitudes is three times more damaging than discharging them closer to the ground.

But with a carbon-offset program, we’re told, we can pay a small fee to counter the emissions produced by our flights. The fee, in turn, will be used to help fund clean-energy projects around the world — such as building windmills or solar power plants — in an effort to reduce demand for fossil fuels.

Some carbon-offset programs use the money to plant trees to absorb carbon dioxide. The cost to participate in such programs is usually $10 to $30 per ton of CO2 emitted as a result of specific activities such as air travel, your annual commuting miles, or having a package shipped to you. A ton of CO2 is approximately the amount attributed to one passenger flying round-trip between New York and Los Angeles.

carbon_21Are we being sold a math that is too simple? The workings of nature are complicated and so intertwined that a one-to-one correlation between the damage that an airplane flight causes in CO2 emissions can’t be equated to purchasing shares in a solar power plant or by planting a tree. CO2 cannot be instantly sucked back out of the air; those “green” power plants could take years to build; and it takes decades for a tree to grow — time we might not have before we reach the tipping point in a quickly warming world.

Is carbon offsetting just a story we like to tell ourselves to make us feel better about our travels? Maybe it’s like newspaper headlines of blizzards and sub-zero temperatures amid a barrage of global warming articles predicting future doom for the planet. It’s what I call “Band-Aid hope”: making transitory low temperatures “news” just might make us feel — for a day or two, at least — that global warming isn’t just around the corner; that it’s all a myth.

But perhaps the power of carbon offsetting isn’t in its math after all. While I might do better by the planet by using compact fluorescent light bulbs or wrapping a blanket around my water heater than by purchasing a carbon offset on my next trip, maybe it’s the awareness these programs engender that should make them “figure” prominently in any travel preparations.

What do you think? Share your comments below.

Happy trails and lots of good reading,



  1. Candy
    I like your article. I never heard of this program before. I’m afraid it would too easy to scam consumers with it. I like your idea of using more energy efficient products at home better. Thanks for the information. I really got me thinking.

    Cheryl Porior-Mayhew | March 12th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  2. I don’t think any one aware of the seriousness of global warming really thinks carbon off sets are the answer but the world could use more trees, etc. Personally, I am driving less and hoping for the electric car to come out soon.

    Mrilyn Bronner | March 12th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  3. There are plenty of travel expenses that irk me, but any program that helps offset harm to the environment is OK with me!

    John Thomas | March 12th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  4. Everything’s a trade-off — always. Even things that seem relatively pure must be considered carefully for their hidden costs and the potential damage that they might do. At least we’re having the discussions!

    Paula Apfelbach | March 12th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  5. I really hadn’t thought about how awfully potent jet exhaust is at that altitude!

    Travis John | March 13th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  6. Like so many green ideas, I think this should be at or near the bottom of the to do list. In this day of scam artists, I can see all kinds of pit falls. On the positive side, if people do travel to the remote corners of this planet, they will come back with an awareness (hopefully) of how fragile earth really is, and with the knowledge we only have one planet and when it is destroyed, there is no where to go after that. Lets do something overt rather than pay our way with questionable results. Go Green

    muriel shiff | March 13th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  7. Sounds like a scam to me. It’s just to convenient for them to say they help fund clean-energy projects around the world. Around the world makes pretty hard for anyone to check up on where the money goes.

    John H. | March 17th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  8. It is important to look at carbon offsets in the broader scope of the fight against climate change. Offsets should never be viewed as away of avoiding conservation and efficiency efforts, nor will they alone be able to stop climate change. Rather, they are an arrow in the quiver of sustainability. They allow you the option of going the extra mile. Ideally, you not only change your light bulbs, drive less, wrap your hot water heater, etc. but choose to use offsets as a means for dealing with the unavoidable greenhouse gas emissions in your life. It doesn’t take long to think of what these emissions are (ie. transportation, shared services like street lights, grid provided electricity). Offsets tend to get a bad wrap because people see them as a means for avoiding hard choices involving personal impact. I think most people who choose to purchase offsets are by in large avid environmentalists who want to do everything they can to mitigate their impact. They are not hummer drivers.

    As a consumer of offsets, it is important to be skeptical and do your homework. Transparency from an offset provider is key, as well as proof that the projects are additional, ie would not have happened without the funds generated from the sale of offsets.

    Robbie Adler | March 18th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  9. Hi, Candy,

    Thank you for your article! I learned much more about the carbon offset program from your article. While I would support the programs by paying a litlte more on my flight costs, I agree that there are many ways in which we can help the environment by doing simple things in our own homes and in our daily lives. Thanks again!

    Kris | March 21st, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  10. Well written and well thought out. How refreshing to read some common sense for a change.

    bud kuppenheimer | March 23rd, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  11. Useful info will come back again

    home made wind generators | June 27th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  12. I think of carbon offsets as a voluntary environmental tax, the proceeds of which go towards investment in good things, like alternative energy and forestation projects . While they may not be the perfect solution to global warming, I don’t think it can be argued that investment in these sorts of things is a bad thing. Consider what would happen if half of all Americans voluntarily paid $100 per year to offset their emissions — $15 billion dollars in additional funds annually would go towards wind and solar energy projects. That WOULD make a difference. The knock against offsets is they let us go guilt free about our ways without changing our behavior which is obviously what really needs to happen to reverse climate change. But I don’t think it’s realistic to believe that people are going to stop driving or flying any time soon. The specter of global warming has been around for years and they haven’t yet. In fact, people have traveled more and more and cars have gotten bigger and bigger. So yes, use CFL bulbs, buy a more fuel efficient car, and think about whether you really need to take that trip on a plane. But if you have to travel or drive, as most of us do, consider offsetting your emissions and making a voluntary investment in clean energy or a new forest.

    simon | July 8th, 2009 | Comment Permalink

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