Do Carbon Offsets Really Work?


If you’ve booked a flight in recent years, you might have seen an option to pay a small amount to offset the carbon emissions of your flight. It sounds great: You can fly as you’d like without any guilt about your impact on the environment. In this post I’m going to talk about how it’s a bit more complicated than that and clarify the question once and for all: Do carbon offsets really work?

The concept

Firstly, I’m going to give a basic overview of the concept. It’s very simple. You release carbon emissions through something you buy or do. If the amount you emit can be calculated, then you can offset that amount by helping to reduce the amount emitted elsewhere. This can be done in numerous ways, but one of the most common ones is by planting trees. If you release carbon emissions equivalent to 4 trees, then paying a company to plant 4 trees in theory means the overall emissions you’ve released is zero.

Why carbon offsets work

Scientists generally agree that in order to meet our climate change goals, we will need to maintain our rainforests and plant more trees. Trees can hold a large amount of carbon and are therefore perfectly suited for our environmental needs. Planting more trees through offsets will make a notable difference.

Offsets involve more than just trees however. Some offsets fund different kinds of projects, such as solar and wind energy projects, more environmentally friendly stoves in developing countries or better agricultural techniques. These projects will reduce carbon emissions, which can then be offset. The benefit of these projects is that they can make a real impact to reducing long term emissions as well as helping some of the poorest people in the world.

Why carbon offsets don’t work

It all sounds good on paper, but that’s kind of the problem. The quality of carbon offsets differs significantly. Some offsets plant a large amount of trees, only for the trees to then be cut down after a short time. New trees can then be planted on that same land where they will then be used for new carbon offsets. This, obviously, significantly reduces the benefit of them. For this to work well, the trees need to be planted on new land where they will be undisturbed for hundreds of years.

There are also problems with other kinds of projects. A carbon offset is only effective if it has reduced emissions that would not have been reduced without the offset. Unfortunately, this is where it gets tricky. If a carbon offset funds a wind farm that would have been built regardless of the offset, then no carbon emissions have been reduced by the offset. This is an issue for a large percentage of these projects. Giving money to people to do things they were going to do anyway does not help the problem. In fact, some people think that using bad carbon offsets is actually worse than doing nothing, because it gives you an incorrect feeling that you are no longer part of the problem, that you do not need to change any of your behavior.

Should I buy carbon offsets?

In my opinion, you should still use carbon offsets but you should do so carefully. The main thing to do is to try and actually reduce your own carbon emissions as much as you can. However, in modern society, driving and flying is hard to avoid and it is very difficult to get your carbon footprint to zero. You can only do your best. After you’ve reduced what you can, you can look at offsets as a way to do a bit extra.

If you remember that carbon offsets are a small part of the solution and not the entire solution, you can use them to make a difference. Look out for Gold Standard programs which means the offset is being monitored to make sure it is actually reducing offsets. I personally use Atmosfair (not sponsored), but there are a number of options you can use.

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