Offsetting carbon - what is the big deal?

airplane company plane flying

There seems to be a “new trend”, one may say, among companies and services that you might have noticed recently while booking your flight or accommodation, buying online or renting a car - carbon offsetting. Thanks to this, our conscience can be slightly more at ease - after all, it is hard to name a less environmentally-friendly than taking a flight in a 60-tons can, made of metals and aluminium which spits massive amounts of fumes? Offsetting carbon started to get offered as a panacea for our broken hearts - but does it really make a difference?
Read on for some basic knowledge that you should have before becoming a carbon offset groupie.

WHY, who and how?

First of all, offsetting carbon has been around for a fairly long time, but it was not always indicated. It actually often originates from mandatory regulations implemented towards some companies, especially those which rely on heavy polluting for their business model. To neutralise their negative impact, some governmental regulations have, since long, requested those companies to invest in environmental relief programmes as a “sorry” for the harm they do.
As the good old Wikipedia puts it:

“There are two markets for carbon offsets. In the larger, compliance market, companies, governments, or other entities buy carbon offsets in order to comply with caps on the total amount of carbon dioxide they are allowed to emit. For instance, an entity could be complying with obligations of Annex 1 Parties under the Kyoto Protocol or of liable entities under the EU Emission Trading Scheme, among others.“

But to answer a question of what offsetting carbon really is, it is enough for one to image a simple tradeoff scenario. Whenever you are taking a flight, the CO2 emitted by the airplane go through the roof - needless to say, the longer flight the bigger the emissions. It is also worth noting that the most fuel is burnt while the plane takes off - which would mean all of us can, by default, limit our carbon footprint by simply paying a little more for direct flights, instead of relying on transfers. Anyway - the whole point is for companies whose whole operation is based solely on carbon emissions and rely on fossil fuels - airlines, car rental companies, shippers etc, to be able to become carbon neutral. That is why, those companies can financially contribute to projects that work to reduce carbon emissions by “purchasing offsets”, meaning, buying into firms, NGOs and companies who attempt to limit carbon emissions hovering in the atmosphere.
It is really as simple as that.
As already stated above, the companies who invest in carbon offsets are those whose business models rely on emitting carbon and other pollutants, and in any other way contribute to climate change and environmental damage. There are already plenty of airlines who offer carbon offsetting: big players such as Emirates, Quantas, Virgin Australia, Delta Airlines, British Airways, but also low cost airlines like Jetstar and JetBlue Airways.

Offsetting carbon - what change does it make?

Now, as good and noble offsetting carbon sounds like - the real question is what is the actual advantage of it. On one hand, it is naturally in place to take responsibility for harmful actions and try to neutralise the negative impact. On the other hand, one can argue that it is always the “kick first, pardon later” sort of approach and it gives companies green light to be harmful in the first place because they can offset their emissions anyway - instead of pushing for innovations that would cut off or even limit the emissions in the first place. Carbon neutrality is a catchy but also deceptive term which is a little bit like a band-aid on a wound that keeps getting scratched and infected. You won’t heal it by covering it - you will by stopping screwing it up. This approach of “avoidance” is dangerous, because it does not motivate companies to pollute less - it just motivates them to spend more on other environmental projects. Even more so, as the balance of risks and costs is so unequal: the harm of polluting the environment is tremendous (and now more than ever it feels irreversible) but the easiness of simply paying money to the right people makes it a no-brainer.
Why would we stop polluting if we can just make a bank transfer and be done with it? We are making loads of money, after all!
To us at least, another issue with offsetting carbon can potentially be the execution. It is usually very hard to make sure that companies are actually funding the right companies or organisations. What would stop them, for example, from setting up their own “green” company and make the money circulate within the same mother organisation? We truly hope there are regulations and check-ups for such actions, but we have seen enough already not to be sceptical…

Credit: Our Changing Climate (YouTube)

Where does it leave us?

To understand carbon offsetting even better, try watching the short video attached in this article, it gives some awesome information and real struggles connected to offsetting carbon - among others, it touches on the idea of carbon colonialism (intrigued? Watch!)

We hate to be negative though, so we don’t want to leave the topic on such pessimistic note. It really is a lesser evil and we absolutely cheerlead for carbon offsetting if that is our only alternative to dealing only with huge polluters who have absolutely no regulations above them and no requirements to reduce their negative impact. However, rather than praising carbon offsetting to the moon and back, we much rather promote innovativeness and search for alternatives for emissions in the first place. We would love to see the polluting companies invest as gladly in their sustainability departments and research teams who would grant important but challenging look at their respective businesses and actively look for ways to take their companies further into sustainable ways of expansion. Discoveries are there to get discovered, but if we don’t actively look - they will remain hidden. We hope for the industries to start going an extra mile to ensure lower emissions, rather than settling in the comfort zone of “paying the right carbon offsetting company” just to clean their conscience.