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Flying Shame: Is It Worth Paying to Offset Your Emissions? ✈️ ♻️

Carbon offsetting seems like an easy concept on the surface. But underneath, it's one deep rabbit hole. And with global warming an ever-growing threat, we all need to think about it.

Published by
Raph Giacardi·12/4/2023
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Carbon offsetting is easy, right? Compensate for your greenhouse gas emissions by paying to… well… erm… offset carbon?

That's the thing: most of us understand the general idea of carbon offsetting, but when it comes to the details, it gets a lot murkier.

So, we've put together this handy guide. This way, the next time your favorite airline asks if you want to offset your emissions, you'll be able to make a more informed decision.

How does it work?

Carbon offsetting is a way for individuals and organizations to compensate for their greenhouse gas emissions by investing in projects that reduce, prevent, or capture an equivalent amount of emissions elsewhere.

In practice, it means contributing funds towards projects that usually fall into these main categories:

  • Renewable energy: these projects involve producing renewable energy, such as wind, solar, or hydropower, to replace or reduce the need for fossil fuels.

  • Reforestation and afforestation: trees absorb carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, so planting trees (afforestation) or restoring forests (reforestation) can help offset emissions.

  • Methane capture: methane is a potent greenhouse gas. Projects capture methane emissions from landfills, agricultural operations, or wastewater treatment plants.

  • Energy efficiency: this means investing in projects that improve energy efficiency, such as upgrading infrastructure or implementing more efficient technologies.

In the case of airlines, parts of the funds can also go towards investing in fuel-efficient planes and the development of sustainable fuel.

Once a person or organization has selected specific projects, they can purchase carbon offsets equivalent to the emissions they want to compensate for.

How do I know a project is real?

Since most offset programs offered by airlines are a collection of individual projects, you’ll need to look at where the money goes. Companies generally publish that information. They will also usually tell you whether the projects they fund through carbon offsets have been accredited.

A good place to start is to look for these certifications:

  • Gold Standard: The Gold Standard is a certification standard for high-quality carbon reduction projects with a focus on sustainable development

  • Verified Carbon Standard: VCS, which is administered by Verra, is a widely recognized standard for certifying carbon offset projects

  • Climate Action Reserve: The Climate Action Reserve operates in North America, providing a platform for the registration and verification of carbon offset projects

  • American Carbon Registry: ACR focuses on a wide range of greenhouse gas reduction projects in the Americas, with a comprehensive approach to project validation

Can I use other schemes than the airlines’?

Yes, but it’s more time-consuming.

The starting point is knowing what volume of greenhouse gas you need to offset. In the case of flights, most airlines will tell you the volume of CO2 generated by your flights. If you can’t find that information, the Carbon Fund has a handy calculator.

You'll then need to look for projects to back. One of the easiest ways to do so is by having a look at the Gold Standard Marketplace.

Other options include COTAP, Plan Vivo, Carbonfund.org, and Climate Action Reserve. Some of these websites invite you to donate, rather than telling you the actual amount of carbon you’re offsetting, so you might need to do a bit more research to know what’s what.

Does it work?

Carbon offsets do not reduce emissions at the source. Your plane won't spew out less CO2 because you've given more money to the airline. What you're doing instead is sending funds to projects that should have a positive impact on the planet. But in practice, that impact is hard to quantify.

Some investigations have cast doubts on the effectiveness of carbon offsetting in general, saying the benefits are negligible. But if you're going to fly and you've done some due diligence on the projects backed by your airline of choice, it's certainly better than nothing. You are, after all, funding worthwhile undertakings that aim to be a net positive for the planet.

But it's certainly not a be-all and end-all. It's also worth considering the impact of your lifestyle and making swaps, like traveling by train or choosing a bus over a taxi, whenever possible.

What’s TravelPirates doing about this?

As a company, we are taking steps to address and minimize our carbon emissions when traveling for business. We favor rail travel for destinations reachable in five hours or less by train.

For longer trips or journeys where train travel isn’t an option, we pay to offset our emissions when flying through TravelPerk's GreenPerk program.

We also offer greener options to our followers by reviewing and publishing a range of eco-friendly deals.