Sustainability: Carbon Offsets – Fact or Fiction

Going on a long airplane trip? Planning to buy carbon offsets to compensate for the emissions for that flight? Airplane travel is one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon offsets involve paying a small amount of money to reduce emissions somewhere distant, e.g. planting more trees in the Amazon Rainforest. All good? Not so fast.


It is becoming clear that many offset investments do not do what they promise to do. Several studies, cited in this N Y Times article, have concluded that in general, most carbon offsets significantly overestimate the gains that they should have produced. ( Some offsets are more underhanded – such as buying offsets to stop logging of a grove of trees when the owners were never planning to cut down the trees.


Well-meaning individuals, concerned about this impact of their trips, buy carbon offsets. However, most of the carbon offsets are purchased by corporations, including fossil fuel companies, so that they can achieve their “net zero” goals, while continuing to pollute but using the purchased offsets to balance out their emissions to “net zero.” The University of California system had a “net zero” target of 2025, but this was dependent upon carbon offsets being used to address over 50% of its emissions. They have recently changed their goal by eliminating offsets and instead directly cutting emissions to achieve a real net zero by 2045, which is far better.


We should all do the same. Instead of buying carbon offsets and feeling good about compensating for the emissions of an airplane trip, focus instead on reducing your own carbon footprint. Don’t take unnecessary flights, use an electric vehicle or public transit instead of a gasoline-powered car, decarbonize your home, put solar on your roof, etc. If you do want to buy offsets, check for projects that have been vetted, e.g. by The Gold Standard and Green-e.