More and more people are trying to offset their travel emissions – so why isn’t it straightforward? John Vidal explains the options and how to navigate them in an article on The Guardian website.
Offsetting carbon emissions: ‘It has proved a minefield’
Here’s the problem: in two months’ time I must travel to Malawi in southern Africa to help Gumbi Education, a small, Guardian-led kids’ education charity that I chair. There’s no Skype option, no railways or boats, and travelling 3,000 miles across Egypt, Sudan, Kenya and Tanzania by bus is not recommended.
I’ve cut my annual holiday flights, I’ve reduced my work travel, and my carbon footprint is nothing to what it was. But realistically, I must fly the 10,200 miles to and from Lilongwe – and I want to offset my emissions in some way. If done correctly, this should mean that I do less harm overall.
But what I thought would be easy to arrange has proved a minefield. There is no agreement on how much carbon dioxide a journey may emit, confusion about what actions best reduce emissions, a huge choice of where to direct your money, and growing cynicism as airlines, airports and giant carbon-greedy corporations use offsetting to sell more flights or get permission to grow even further.
A decade ago, the voluntary carbon offset market was tiny, unsophisticated and largely unregulated. The little money raised was aimed at worthwhile projects, but few schemes to cut emissions or promote development were verified or certified. Exposés, the financial crash and painfully slow progress in the UN climate talks all helped discourage individuals and companies from offsetting.
But as awareness of the climate crisis has grown, corporates in particular have turned to voluntary offsetting and sent the market mainstream. Small companies have been weeded out, highly regulated global carbon and renewable energy markets have been set up, and thousands of participating companies and charities are now theoretically held to international standards by independent verifiers.
As the climate emergency grows, so too does the money involved – and the need for accountability.
Offsetting means calculating emissions and then purchasing equivalent “credits” from projects that prevent or remove the emissions of an equivalent amount of greenhouse gases elsewhere. One tonne of carbon is usually the equivalent of one credit and the market for these credits, worth possibly a few tens of millions of dollars in 2007, is now valued at over $500m a year and growing fast.
Even though the International Air Transport Association (IATA) says that just 1% of passengers offset their carbon emissions through voluntary programmes, there has been a 140-fold growth between 2008 and 2018, with 430 million tonnes of emission reductions generated since 2005.
This is equivalent to more than all of Australia’s energy-related emissions in 2016, according to Forest Trends, a New York-based conservation finance company that tracks carbon offset projects. The company’s report, Voluntary Carbon Markets Insights, says: “Demand for voluntary carbon offsets has grown … from just 0.3 million tonnes of CO2 in 2008 to 42.8 million tonnes in 2018.”
Sarah Leugers, communications director of the Geneva-based nonprofit Gold Standard, which was set up by environment group WWF, says that – paradoxically – Donald Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Paris agreement transformed the market, with companies and individuals all now wanting to do the right thing in contrast.
As the market matures, so the choice of ways to offset emissions increases. You can now offset rail, road and air journeys, your stay in a holiday hotel, your daily commute, your home heating – indeed you could offset the emissions of your whole life.
You could have a forest of banana trees or avocados planted in Kenya, reduce the amount of methane emitted from an Indonesian waste dump, provide fresh water to Malawians, rewild Romania or reforest areas of the Amazon basin home to communities of indigenous peoples.
Today, the big offset certifiers such as American Carbon Registry, Climate Action Reserve, Gold Standard, Plan Vivo and Verra offer many hundreds of projects. To make it even more complex, the carbon price of these projects depends on where they are and the benefits they offer. Standards of verification also vary but in general are considered to be much tighter in Europe than the US.
Most voluntary offsetting organisations operate as nonprofits, but few of them will spell out the fact that they might take up to 20% of what users contribute as running costs.
The problem is knowing what is best. Tree planting is theoretically highly effective but some offset schemes have attracted criticism for displacing people or creating monocultures; wind and solar power projects are usually widely welcomed on a community level; capturing methane gas from waste tips and landfill sites makes total sense but is hardly attractive; and energy efficiency works best with the profligate rich. All schemes have pluses and minuses.
“Offsetting must go hand in hand with an ambitious internal reduction strategy,” says Leugers. “The first priority should always be to reduce your own footprint before offsetting, but the reality is that not every individual or business can do that quickly.
“Business is putting in more money, but the number of people acting individually is growing significantly. We have 1,500 projects in the pipeline. We don’t choose them; NGOs come to us. They are all independently verified. The best advice I can give is to always look for the underlying standards.”
Robert Stevens of Climate Care agrees: “Until we reach a zero-carbon world … paying to reduce an equivalent amount of carbon emissions through voluntary offsetting is the most cost-effective, quickest and efficient way of doing this.”
But even trying to establish how much you emit on a journey is hard. Some offsetters take into account the extra impact of flying at an altitude above 35,000 feet; others look at the age of the aircraft type you are likely to fly in, whether you travel business class, any stop-off points and how full the plane is likely to be. As the market grows, it throws up anomalies and prompts accusations that it legitimises the growth of emissions. Twenty-nine of the most fuel-profligate airlines, including Emirates, Delta, BA, Air Canada and Gulf, now offer to offset their customers’ flights, and 15 airlines now voluntarily offset their own emissions in some capacity.
According to Airport Carbon Accreditation, 43 European airports (representing 26% of European air traffic) are now certified Level 3+ neutrality, with a further 232 around the world part of the same accreditation scheme, meaning they have at least begun their journey towards reducing emissions.
This allows Heathrow – which hopes that with a third runway it will be able to take an extra 265,000 flights a year – to say that it plans to use offsets to make it “carbon neutral” by 2030 and to be “zero-carbon” by 2050, even though it will build one of the world’s largest car parks and directly increase global emissions by millions of tonnes of CO2.
This is wholly disingenuous, says Green MP Caroline Lucas, who describes Heathrow as “taking economy with the truth to new levels”.
But there’s no doubt that companies, individuals, nonprofit groups, even cities are now using offsets to go “carbon-neutral” or even “zero carbon”. Liverpool is working with Malta-based blockchain nonprofit Poseidon to offset emissions with projects in Africa; and brands such as Disney, Microsoft, Lyft, Apple, Aviva and Sony have pledged to use offsets to become climate neutral.
The bottom line is that to offset emissions, it is now possible to pay almost what you want to whom you want (though it is surprisingly difficult to calculate cruise ship emissions). The key to gauging the large-scale projects favoured by companies is to ascertain that they are real, measurable, independently verified and permanent, and would not have taken place without the finance provided by the sale of credits.
Ideally, say observers, travellers should check to see whether they offer verified emission reduction (VER) credits, as offered by Gold Standard.
The other approach is to use DIY offsets. This involves working out your emissions using an online calculator (see calculator tool above), then finding a project that roughly compensates (for example Gold Standard). Or you could just donate to an organisation working to suck up carbon or generate renewable energy. Many admirable environmental projects run by small energy and conservation groups do excellent work on tree planting and clean energy without always offering credits – just contributing would effectively help offset emissions. Forests Without Frontiers in Romania, Tree Aid and the Woodland Trust are personal favourites.
Offsetting can work, and it allows people who have to travel to do so with a clearer conscience. But the best strategy must be to reduce your own emissions first.
HOW TO DO IT: EIGHT POSSIBILITIES
For his 10,200-mile round London to Lilongwe round-trip via Nairobi, John asked eight offsetting companies to calculate his CO2 emissions, how much they would cost to offset, and where the money goes. The results proved highly variable.
CO2 emissions 2.35 tonnes
Projects Safe drinking water in Malawi, fuel efficiency in Ghana, landfill energy in Thailand, rainforests in Brazil
CO2 emissions 5 tonnes
Projects Energy efficiency in South Africa, biogas in Nepal, wind and hydro power
CO2 emissions 2.24 tonnes
Projects Water treatment in Kenya, hydroelectric in India
CO2 emissions 2.6 tonnes
Projects Restoring grasslands in Mongolia, reducing deforestation in Tanzania
CO2 emissions 2.4 tonnes
Projects Solar panels in India
CO2 emissions 3.1 tonnes
Projects Energy efficiency in Africa, reforestation in Nicaragua
CO2 emissions 2.74 tonnes
Cost Between £7 and £30 a tonne
Projects Borehole rehabilitation in Uganda, hydroelectric in Chile
Asks you to calculate your own emissions and choose a project
Projects Water purifiers in Cambodia, fuel-efficient stoves in Sudan