Does Buying Carbon Offets When You Travel Even Do Anything?


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If you’re traveling again and have any amount of anxiety over climate change, you might have considered whether to buy carbon offset credits to minimize the environmental impact of your flight. One study found that 8% of carbon emissions across the globe are generated by tourism—and approximately half of that comes from transportation. Air travel makes up a very small percentage of overall emissions compared to driving (and industry, obviously), but it’s not nothing. So is it worth it to purchase carbon offsets for your flight?

What are carbon offsets?

A carbon offset is a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in one place that makes up for emissions created somewhere else. As a consumer, you can purchase offsets as credits that are invested in community projects that reduce emissions—reforestation, efficient cooking equipment, and wind power are a few examples.

How much do carbon offsets cost?

There isn’t one single rate for carbon offsets, as it depends on where you buy them from and what you are aiming to offset. First, let’s say that you’re flying round-trip—nonstop each way—from Los Angeles to New York with an approximate flight time around five hours per leg. According to Cool Effect’s offset calculator, the total carbon output for this trip would be 1.56 tonnes at a total cost of $19.03. (The cost per tonne is $12.20.)

But some offsets are priced based on the project they support. Gold Standard, a carbon credit marketplace, lists rates ranging from $10 per tonne for a hydro power initiative in Sri Lanka, to $47 per tonne supporting recycling in Romania. Instead of being linked directly to output from travel, Gold Standard estimates carbon footprints based on country of residence, though you can calculate your individual impact as well and purchase offsets accordingly. Carbon offsets are tax-deductible if you are supporting a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

How do I buy carbon offsets for my flight?

You generally don’t buy carbon offsets directly from your airline, as most partner with other organizations, projects, or marketplaces—and not all airlines use carbon offsets as their primary sustainability initiative. Business Traveller has a guide to airline carbon offset programs, but note that Delta no longer offers consumer carbon offsets, and United has sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) contributions available to purchase instead.

So, should I buy carbon offets?

One major critique of consumer carbon offset programs is that there’s very little regulation—it’s not always clear what you’re paying for and what the real impact will be. The funding may not offer a benefit that wouldn’t have existed already, the project may be terminated early, or the protection provided in one location can lead to damage elsewhere. This approach also places the onus on individuals rather than large corporate polluters—the much larger problem.

What can I do instead of buying carbon offsets?

It’s best to find reputable projects and use sites like Cool Effect or Gold Standard. But while purchasing carbon offsets isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s not the only way to take responsibility for your travel footprint. Obviously, flying less reduces your impact significantly, so if that meeting could be over Zoom instead of in person, maybe it should be. Similarly, vacationing closer to home can cut your footprint.

(For comparison’s sake, Cool Effect calculates the output of driving round-trip from LA to NYC in a full-size sedan at 2.52 tonnes, significantly higher than the impact of flying that distance.)

If you must fly, experts recommend booking nonstop with large commercial airlines that have bigger, fuller planes, which have lower per-person emissions than small or private flights.



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