As holiday season kicks into high gear and you frantically make last-minute online arrangements to visit family, friends, mortal enemies (or some combination of the above) across the country or globe, you’ve likely seen icons on the booking page inviting you to buy greenhouse gas offsets for your journey. In some cases, the icon may be juxtaposed against a lush grove of trees, a statuesque windmill or other “green” symbol.
Advertising aside, what are offsets for carbon and other greenhouse gases, and how all-around effective are they? Put simply, you’re paying someone else not to pollute so that you can, thus reducing overall potential carbon emissions from what it would be if you two didn’t have this financial agreement in place. The money collected through voluntary offsets help fund projects aimed at reducing carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions throughout the world. Common example projects include forest restoration, retrofitting buildings and transportation infrastructure for greater energy efficiency and use of clean, renewable fuels.
While funding offset projects local to donors are available, the majority of the largest projects take place in developing countries in the economic south while purchasers mainly hail from more affluent nations in the economic north. In part, this stems from the relative strength and stability of Western currencies (dollars, Euros, sterling, etc) in other markets, allowing for larger, more ambitious projects for a given cost. The apparent greater cost-effectiveness of establishing and operating greenhouse gas offset projects in developing countries is intrinsically linked to current gaps in their industrial infrastructure. In other words, it is cheaper to build new clean, efficient infrastructure from scratch than disassemble preexisting infrastructure in economically developed countries, and then rebuild them. By the same token, many large developing countries with significant open space and greater biodiversity are in a better position to protect that conservation area than nations who are charged with reclaiming open space from use by civilization.
Of course, this idea of capitalizing on building clean, energy-efficient infrastructure appears rather sensible on an aggregate scale. However, there are drawbacks to long-distance project support. First and foremost is the issue of quality control: there is no single overarching standard which offset projects must meet. There are multiple, nonbinding standards in place, relating to different types of offsets. These include the Voluntary Carbon Standard (VCS), the Gold Standard and the Climate, Community and Biodiversity Standard. Buying carbon offsets is much more akin to donating to a cause that purchasing a product or service: the benefits of your investment are highly intangible and difficult to gauge. Unfortunately, this makes offset purchasers vulnerable to scams by “carbon cowboys“–offset companies that accept funds for non-existent or fraudulent projects. Even when offset project developers are well-intentioned, projects can fail, as in the case of reforestation projects where the majority of trees die as saplings.
While supporting reforestation projects with offset funds is a popular choice for its tangibility, the duration of time required before the carbon sink effects it provides may make it a less useful method of reducing emissions in the short term. Additionally, the vulnerability of trees to be cut and burned by humans in the future or destroyed by natural disaster threatens their overall reliability as long-term climate sinks.
Additionally, remember that while buying offsets helps reduce carbon & other ghg emissions elsewhere, it does not physically erase the effects of your decision to travel. Traveling long distances by plane and personal car is a luxury not easily available to much of the world. If you do not make efforts to curb your own personal emissions by say, using energy-efficient appliances or converting to alternative energy sources, you have made no real changes in your own life to be “greener” by buying carbon offsets. You are simply paying poor people elsewhere to take care of your mess for you. While this tactic is for all intents and purposes the American (and to some extent, First World) Way, it is contingent on the existence of great long-term wealth discrepancy worldwide. To acknowledge that your lifestyle creates this mess, and voluntarily agreeing to compensate others to counterbalance it is a fine first step. I’m of the opinion that the offset cost should be included in all ticket prices. However, recognizing the likelihood of that actually happening, I do appreciate those who voluntarily provide that difference in the form of offsets. At the same time, the difference between the average purchaser and recipient of ghg offset project funds is indicative of the remaining separation in lifestyle privileges between the developed and developing worlds.
It is in the spirit of sustainable development and global poverty alleviation that I ask: doesn’t the wealthy and fortunate strata of the world owe the less privileged a little lifestyle sacrifice? We ask the developing world to, well, develop more sustainably and go so far as to pay them to do as much, but what about achieving some sustainable developments of our own? When people from the economic global south seek to emulate the standard of living in the global economic north, exactly what is the environmental cost of said lifestyle? In order to combat global poverty as well as our future impact on climate change, nations of all economic strata must commit to greening our existence on our own soil. Individuals, businesses and countries alike with wealth of course should be encouraged to provide economic support for their counterparts of lesser means to reduce pollution, but not en lieu of taking personal action in their own home community.
Buying offsets for your emissions if you can afford it is a noble first step in taking ownership of your ecological footprint on the path to a lighter tread.