It’s 2021 and Carbon Offsets Can't Assuage Your Guilt If They Don't Actually Work
Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash
Let’s imagine: It’s July of 2021 and you’re finally taking that vacation to Bali that you’ve had to postpone twice now. You’ve been looking forward to this for over a year at this point: pristine beaches, cocktails by the ocean, gorgeous tropical forests, and a new culture full of food and customs waiting to be explored by you.
Early on the day of your flight, you arrive at the airport with bags and proof of COVID vaccine in hand. That anticipatory hum that airports just seem to radiate is slowly sinking into your bones via your ears. The chatter of a bustling airport after a year of quarantine is refreshing. As you board the plane the pre-flight jitters sink in just a little bit but you still can’t help but think finally!
In the air, you eagerly await your plane landing to usher in the start of your trip. You got a window seat because you’ve always been fascinated by how small the rush of towns, mountains, and water far beneath you seem. Perhaps you even start the trip off with a small cocktail mid-flight. Tropical themed, duh - you’re on vacation after all! Meanwhile, the jetliner under your bum is pumping out X Tons of carbon per mile speeding away beneath you.
You know that, vaguely at least, flying is bad for the environment. You’re not heartless, and you’re genuinely trying to be a good person. You want to see the world because you’re a good person: traveling fuels the soul, broadens the mind, and creates global understanding. Why not go?
So to offset the impact of your trip, you decided to invest a sum of money to mangrove reforestation efforts. This carbon offset scheme promises to sequester an amount of carbon from the air equal to the amount your trip is putting into the atmosphere. They’re doing this by planting trees and reinvigorating a fragile, beautiful habitat. Everyone benefits!
You rest easy in your seat, knowing that you are essentially having your cake and eating it, too. It’s a win-win situation after all. You have the money to donate, you get your trip, and you don’t injure the world in the process. Right?
Do Carbon Offsets Make a Difference, Really?
What it comes down to for carbon offsets is that they really are just good marketing schemes. Some of them are obviously going to be much worse than others. If you really want to purchase a carbon offset, here are a few things to think about first.
Shockingly, saving one area from deforestation can actually result in something called “leakage”, where another area gets deforested instead. Perhaps the most shocking part of the report on leakage, in particular, is that very few methods exist to monitor this phenomenon. Meaning we have little to no idea of the impact actually being made by carbon offsets.
One prime example of leakage is happening in the biodiverse Paraguay forest of Chaco. The Minneapolis-based US company of Cargill - the largest privately held corporation in the United States - prides itself on making sustainable industrial agriculture a reality. In fact, the company has spent millions of dollars on this very subject.
One funded aspect of the project includes Cargill's own satellite company used to monitor deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil. Cargill and other companies laud themselves as green and sustainable for promoting Amazon efforts, Meanwhile, Paraguay - where Cargill also works - is suffering instead, where the forest is heavily logged to make room for soybean farms used for international export.
If that doesn’t convince you, mull over another fact for a moment. In a letter to the State of California, the European Union stated that it has never allowed forestry credits to be used through its Emissions Trading Program due to “concerns about their environmental integrity”. If the entire continent of Europe has concerns about the integrity of forest credits in exchange for carbon emissions, you probably should have at least a few concerns as well.
Think about this: Brazil receives more REDD+ funding than any other country in the world. Perhaps, you’d say, rightly so: they have more rainforest than any other country in the world. Yet, somehow Brazil’s deforestation rates have been on the rise in the past decade. Although they are still lower than they were before 2000, it still begs the question: how much money do we need to throw at this problem?
So the takeaway here is that forest-driven carbon offset schemes are not worth your time. Plant a tree in your own backyard, install some solar panels, and call it a day.
Additionally, corruption in the carbon offset community has been rampant. Not only in the forestation sector but beyond. Virgin Atlantic stopped buying offsets from one company due to the scandal they caused.
In 2015, a French research center examined 120 projects and found that 37% overlapped with existing protected lands like national parks. Though offsets require an added benefit, the authors concluded REDD+ was simply layered onto existing conservation plans, reducing it to a “logo to attract financing.”
In China, some chemical companies were found to create emissions only to get paid to reduce them. Deliberately producing carbon and other greenhouse gases just to have shady manufacturing companies pay the Chinese companies to then destroy them. Why shouldn’t they? The incentives - money - were high enough that it financially made more sense to pollute. The scheme is being clamped down on due to a “complete lack of integrity”, but the damage might be done.
Another takeaway is the fact that we need to simply prevent emissions from getting into the atmosphere in the first place. If you truly think that you can buy your way out of responsibility for the planet, you are kidding yourself. Can Big Oil companies do the same thing? What about the fact that emissions go beyond carbon?
Jet fuel accounts for a long-term decrease in atmospheric ozone, among other pollutants. Heavy pollution in our atmosphere leads to things like childhood asthma from ozone and a rise in cancer from the destruction of the ozone layer.
Can you plant a tree in South America, and make that reality go away? Obviously not. That is like a heavy drinker partying the night away and thinking a few liver cleansing pills and some Pedialite are going to fix their cirrhosis. The answer instead is to stop pollution before it even starts.
Some Good News About Carbon Offsets
We all know by now that tropical forests are key to biodiversity. They also support millions of livelihoods. What we are also now seeing is that paying others to plant trees in tropical forests to assuage our guilt for travel or splurging on the heat just isn’t going to cut it. These schemes are rife with corruption and might just be better left alone.
Look into your other carbon offset options, or better yet, just reduce your emissions point-blank. If taking a sailboat to Bali rather than flying seems out of the question, maybe it’s time to lobby for cleaner fuels and cheaper international modes of transportation all around.
There are carbon offset programs that are making a difference in the world. These programs are independently verified by third parties. They’re run by people who genuinely want to help the world, and backed by actual emissions reductions. They also truly tend to be used by corporations and people who are taking many strides (not just offsets) to reduce their overall impact.
Like most things in sustainability, the subject of carbon offsets is nuanced. Remember that before you buy to do your due diligence and research the heck out of your offset company.
First and foremost though, make strides in other areas of your life to reduce your emissions.