What Are Carbon Offsets?

Carbon offsets may not be the end-all-be-all to eliminating emissions generated by travel, but they are a first step.

What Are Carbon Offsets?

More companies and airlines are being incentivized to invest in carbon offsets.

Illustration by Anuj Shrestha

Welcome to AFAR Answers: a deep dive into all your unanswered travel questions. Next up: What’s the deal with carbon offsets?

OK, spell it out for me. What exactly is a carbon offset?

It’s best to explain what a carbon offset is with a real-world example. Want to take a round-trip flight from New York to London? That will pump about 4,450 pounds of carbon into the air, according to online calculator Terrapass.

A carbon offset against this flight would help sponsor a project aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions or increasing carbon storage (for example: funding a wind turbine or preventing deforestation). You can buy offsets through a variety of organizations, some of which partner with airlines.

How do I know whether the carbon-neutralizing activity I’m paying for actually happens?

You want to be sure that the offset program brings about a reduction in carbon that wouldn’t already happen otherwise, that the carbon stays out of the atmosphere long-term, and that there’s no double counting.

The key is to ensure the offsets you purchase are verified by a third party such as Gold Standard or Verra’s VCS Program.

Can you give me an example of a carbon offset project?

In Kenya’s Chyulu Hills region, the nonprofit Conservation International is using offset money to preserve forests through a combination of enforcement, financial incentives, and education. Its Verra-verified plan will prevent 18 million tons of carbon emissions over the next 30 years.

In Peru, Conservation International is also working to save the Alto Mayo Protected Forest while offering training and support to coffee growers in the region.

Offsets aren’t just about trees; they can also help safeguard mangroves and seagrass or fund technologies such as solar lights or cleaner cookstoves.

What are the criticisms of carbon offsets?

Some say they give rich nations and individuals a license to keep polluting. Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, declared in 2021 at the climate change conference COP26 that offsets let “governments and corporations pretend they are doing something about climate change when they are not.”

A newly planted sapling in Bolivia will take decades to grow into a mature tree and remove only a fraction of the carbon dumped into the atmosphere by a flight today.

Offsets are no panacea—and no substitute for reducing carbon emissions—but they are an important part of our overall first aid kit for the planet.

Why can’t the airlines sort this stuff out instead?

The aviation industry has capped international civil airline emissions at 2019 levels, meaning that any growth from that point must be carbon-neutral. To help achieve that, airlines are purchasing offsets and sustainable aviation fuels.

That’s nice of them.

Don’t give them too much credit.

They’re bound by a 2016 agreement from the International Civil Aviation Organization. Nevertheless, most of the big players have robust climate pledges, carbon calculators for passengers, and partnerships with verified offsetting programs. And industry trade group Airlines for America, which represents the major U.S. operators, announced last March that its members are committed to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Hold on. You realize 2050 is half a lifetime away—the planet needs us now.

Amen. So what are we waiting for? Offset and upward . . .

Tim Chester is a deputy editor at AFAR, focusing primarily on destination inspiration and sustainable travel. He lives near L.A. and likes spending time in the waves, on the mountains, or on wheels.
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