The Truth About Carbon Offsets

by Doug Dosdall Feb 5, 2007

Carbon Offsets

First do no harm. It’s a maxim I try and live by, especially when I travel. I keep my ecological footprint to a minimum-at home by cycling instead of owning a car and living minimally, when traveling by choosing environmentally sustainable activities and supporting local cultures and products so they’re not eroded.

So what happens when the act of stepping on a plane itself for your trip has already done so much harm?

I’m writing this aboard a flight from the west coast of North America to Argentina. According to one online calculator, my return trip will generate 2.7 tons of CO2. Driving a mid-sized car for a year in comparison will generate 3.6 tons of CO2.

Last year I took 5 one-way air trips (most of which also had connecting flights). Although this was less than in a typical year they still generated 2.8 tons of CO2. So my travel schedule pretty much negated my having no car, using a bicycle for almost all my local transport and living a simple non-consumerist life.

Is Flying A Sin?

A recent interview with George Monbiot broadcast on CBC’s The Current really hammered the point home. (Before you read further, I highly recommend spending the next ten minutes listening to this interview. Scroll down for the audio link for part 3 of the show).

The interviewer asks the question whether flying is not only harmful but actually sinful. Monbiot pulls no punches in saying that by continuing our behaviour we’re contributing to “the deaths of tens of millions of people in the tropics.”

He hammers the point home that air travel is a much more harmful generator of greenhouse gases than any other source for several reasons:

  • It is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gases.
  • The type of greenhouse gases and where they are emitted is the most harmful.

In other areas of the economy there are technological substitutes which can substantially mitigate the impacts. For air travel, replacing every plane in the sky with the most fuel efficient would only lead to a 10 to 15% reduction in emissions. Even solutions like biofuels will just lead to growing conflict between growing food for people and for engines, a conflict in which the poor will lose.

Monbiot says the only solution is not just to slow the rapid growth of air travel but to actually cut the number of flights we make by 90%!

But travel is my joy. Along with long hot showers it is my guilty pleasure in life. It’s place where I’ve always allowed myself a little slack to make up for the other positive impacts my lifestyle choices make.

Are there other alternatives?

One alternative receiving a fair amount of press attention is the idea of making your activities “carbon neutral“. What does this exactly mean? Well fundamentally it means buying your way out of this moral quandary. Many websites offer this option.

How do these websites work? They work by calculating the CO2 emissions of your flight or other activity and then asking for a donation that will offset them. The projects to offset emissions work in one of three ways:

  • Planting trees or similar projects which take CO2 out of the atmosphere,
  • Funding projects that use fuel more efficiently. One example provides fuel-efficient cooking stoves to people in Ecuador at a subsidized cost.
  • Subsidizing alternative energy projects and research so that it can compete with more polluting technologies.

It’s a great start. Although I also wonder perhaps if it’s mostly a feel good measure — akin to recycling our endless plastic containers instead of actually reducing the amount of them we buy.

I also see the quandary that if we continue our current level (and growth) of flying and other consumptive activities but all wholeheartedly embrace the idea of mitigation, we will run out of places to plant trees or stoves to replace. Each ton of CO2 mitigated would become progressively more expensive.

The hard truth is that we must support these programs. But if we want to turn this problem around, we must also reduce our consumption-including our air travel.

Resources: A comprehensive UK-based calculator and climate mitigation donation broker that allows you to calculate the impact of your various activities and choose among projects to mitigate them.

My CO2 emission numbers at the beginning of this article were calculated using this site. As an example, mitigating today’s flight and the return trip would cost between £19.98 and £ 25.16 depending on the mitigation project chosen. a Canadian-based, primarily air travel calculator and broker which allocates your donation among the different projects they support.

Of special note here to Canadians is that if you book your Westjet travel starting via a link on their site, Westjet will make a donation on your behalf to make your flight carbon-neutral. If I had wanted to mitigate my emissions from today’s flight, purchasing offsets from this site would cost $63.84 Cdn. the website linked to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth documentary which gives you many ideas on changes you can make to reduce your own impact on global warming.

Doug Dosdall is a travel writer and travel website designer based in Vancouver, BC but with an addiction to warm winters in Latin America. His web design company is DohMedia and his latest projects are and

What do you think about carbon offsets? Do you plan on buying them for your next flight?

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