Beth Kayser

What is carbon offsetting and is it good/bad?

4 min Read
Aerial view of green forest

Carbon offsetting—if you’ve not found yourself in a conversation about it recently, you will soon. It’s climate change’s hot topic, because at first glance it seems like a really good way for individuals and businesses to limit their damage to the planet.

However, before we explore why it’s an imperfect solution (spoiler alert: lots of people making small lifestyle changes can have a more powerful impact) let’s first explore what carbon offsetting is.  

What is carbon offsetting?

Carbon offsetting involves ‘balancing out’ your greenhouse gas emissions by donating to or investing in schemes that reduce emissions elsewhere.

For example, someone who wants to offset the carbon of a flight they took could invest in a renewables project that theoretically prevents the equivalent CO2e from being pumped into the atmosphere by fossil fuels.

What’s good about carbon offsetting?

  1. When done thoughtfully, carbon offsetting provides people and businesses with an opportunity to ‘put back what they’ve taken out’, so to speak
  2. It pumps money into eco-businesses
  3. The schemes are typically based in developing countries, which means (in theory) job creation, improved health and biodiversity, and broader social benefits in areas that need it. Always do your research before investing, however, as much of the benefit of offsetting is lost if it only serves to make rich people richer.

What’s bad about carbon offsetting?

Urban Dictionary put it beautifully when they said “If global warming could be solved by just planting trees, environmentalists would be planting night and day.”

Carbon offsetting becomes a problem when it’s hailed as the answer to climate change (wouldn’t that be nice though).

“A newly-planted tree can take as many as 20 years to capture the amount of CO2 that a carbon-offset scheme promises. We would have to plant and protect a massive number of trees for decades to offset even a fraction of global emissions.” (Greenpeace)

Unfortunately, it’s not our ‘get out of jail free’ card. To effectively halt (and hopefully one day reverse) the damage being done to the environment, governments, businesses, and people are going to have to make changes to how we operate and what we consume.

What’s better than carbon offsetting?

Look at your everyday lifestyle choices to ‘do your bit’ first. Lots of people making small changes can have a powerful impact.

For example, ‘balancing out’ the carbon of a flight you took does nothing to encourage an airline to change. But— if you’re in the position to—choosing to travel via train or bus does, especially if enough people follow suit. Airlines would soon get the message and put more effort into developing technologies that reduce their impact.

Plus, trains/busses would become cheaper which means more people could choose to travel in an eco-friendlier way.

Our advice? Carbon offsetting should be treated as an ‘only if’ solution;

  • only if you’ve made carbon-reducing changes to your lifestyle (big or small)
  • only if you’ve weighed up lower carbon alternatives
  • only if there’s no other way you can do what you need to do

So next time carbon offsetting comes up in conversation, be sure to spread the word:

Carbon offsetting is not a ‘get out of jail free card’, and first and foremost you should look at ways to limit your carbon footprint.

Or Pawprint, as we like to call it.

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