Carbon Offsets ~ 12 Things You Need to Know

As I navigated the world of carbon offsets, I learned that they are even more complicated than I could have imagined. Here are the 12 lessons I’ve learned about carbon offsets that any traveler, especially a green traveler, should know.

Carbon Offsets are Give and Take

The idea is this: in return for your actions that harm the environment, you give money to a program that will improve the environment by an equal amount. According the to Tufts University Climate Initiative, a carbon offset is:

A credit for negating or diminishing the impact of emitting a ton of carbon dioxide by paying someone else to absorb or avoid the release of a ton of CO2 elsewhere.

Carbon Offsets are Highly Controversial

Some people love carbon offsets, but many despise them. As you read more you’ll understand why. The bottom line is there’s very little accountability for companies offering carbon offsets. The company could be taking 80% of your donation for “operating costs” and just giving the leftover 20% to a non-profit.

Carbon Offsetting Occurs by Funding Projects

These projects, in theory, give back to the environment to offset the amount of damage you have done. For example, the project you give money to may go toward providing solar panel roofs to households in India.

There is No Accurate Way to Measure Carbon Emissions

According to The Guardian:

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found a margin of error of 10% with measuring emissions from making cement or fertiliser; 60% with the oil, gas and coal industries; and 100% with some agricultural processes. Measuring emissions from aircraft is especially fraught with disagreement about what exactly should be measured and aggravated by variations in each flight’s height, cargo load and weather conditions. When TuftsUniversity in Maine analysed offsetting websites, it found emissions for flights between Boston and Frankfurt being calculated at anything between 1.43 tonnes and 4.14 tonnes.

Fees Vary Widely

The amount you pay to offset your carbon varies substantially based on the carbon offsetting organization you choose. For example, according to TravelPost, for a trip from New York City to Los Angeles you could pay anywhere from $4.69 to $42.92 in offset fees.

Companies Can be For-Profit or Non-Profit

Organizations that offer carbon offsets are not exclusively non-profits. In fact, only 6 of 21 carbon offsets providers listed at EcobusinessLinks are non-profit companies.

Projects Funded Vary

The range of projects that carbon offsets fund ranges from planting trees to providing wind power to distributing energy efficient light bulbs. You should take the type of project into consideration before choosing a carbon offset organization.

You Can Choose the Projects You Want to Fund – Sometimes

Many of the carbon offsetting organizations allow you to choose which project you want to fund. Others don’t, so do your research before committing.

Don’t Choose to Fund Projects that Plant Trees

This may come as a surprise to you as it did to me. The outcome of planting trees is still unknown. You should look for projects that make a difference now, and not 40 or 50 years from now. Tufts University on protecting forests:

Although protecting forests is very important, protecting them so they absorb carbon is an iffy proposition. We know little about how forests store carbon in the long run, especially with the predicted climatic changes. By all means, donate money to organizations that help protect forests but for carbon offsets, invest in projects that help us transition away from fossil fuels, such as energy efficiency and renewable energy projects.

The Guardian on tree planting:

Some tree-planting projects in Guatemala, Ecuador and Uganda have been accused of disrupting water supplies; evicting thousands of villagers from their land; seizing grazing rights from farmers; cheating local people of promised income; and running plantations where the soil releases more carbon than is absorbed by the trees. The founder of Climate Care, Mike Mason, told the environment audit select committee in February: “I think planting trees is mostly a waste of time and energy.” And yet Climate Care relies for some 20% of its online sales on forestry. Mr. Mason explained apologetically: “People love it unfortunately.”

Choose Projects that Wouldn’t Happen Without Your Help

When you choose a project you should look for one that would not occur naturally, without the organization’s assistance. This concept is also known as “additionality.” Here’s a good example from The Guardian:

One of the biggest UK offsetters, Climate Care, which is used by the Guardian, distributed 10,000 energy-efficient light bulbs in a South African township; offered the carbon reductions as offsets; and then discovered that an energy company was distributing the same kind of light bulbs free to masses of customers, including their township, so the reduction would have happened anyway.

Look for the Gold Standard

The Gold Standard is the strictest standard around. Look for offset providers that adhere to it. They do, however, only give their okay to “renewable energy and energy efficiency projects because we are ultimately focused on a fundamental change in behaviour.” So if energy isn’t your thing, this label probably won’t help you.

Carbon Offsets Shouldn’t Make You Feel Guilt-Free

Just because you buy carbon offsets doesn’t mean that you can continue globetrotting the world, taking 20 minute showers in showers with multiple shower heads, and snacking on food that traveled 6,000 miles to get to you. You still need to be a conscious consumer.

Recommended Companies

Two studies make recommendations based on their research. We at Go Green Travel Green do not necessarily endorse these organizations.

From Tufts:

myclimate a non-profit company based in Switzerland

atmosfair a German non-profit company focusing on offsetting air travel

climate friendly an Australian-based for-profit company

NativeEnergy a US-based for-profit company

From the Guide to Offset Emissions:

Ag Cert / Driving Green (Ireland)

Atmosfair (Germany)

CarbonNeutral Company (UK)

Climate Care (UK)

Climate Trust (US)

Co2balance (UK)

Native Energy (US)

SustainableTravel / MyClimate (US)


Clearly, carbon offsets are complex, and we haven’t even touched on some of deeper issues here (like the Kyoto Protocol and the Voluntary Carbon Standard). If you are interested in reading more, here are some great resources:

Tufts University Climate Change Initiative’s Consumer Handout on Carbon Offsets and Full Report on Carbon Offsets

The Guardian’s “The Inconvenient Truth about Carbon Offset Industry

A Consumers Guide to Retail Carbon Offset Providers

Treehugger How to Green Your Carbon Offsets

Travel Post Guide to Carbon Offsets

Treehugger Through the Jungle of Non-Profit Carbon Offset Providers

Grist A guide to offsetting your carbon emissions.

Carbon Catalog – Location, whether the organization is non-profit, price, and a number of other criteria for 81 businesses.

Carbon Emissions Offset Directory Includes price, whether the organization is non-profit, types of projects (i.e. methane, renewables), project choice, offset types (i.e. car, home, air), and certification for dozens of carbon offset businesses across the world