Carbon offsetting has recently become much more popular than ever before, and with its new-found popularity it has also gained connotations of privileged Westerners (the people who pollute the most) buying their way out of feelings of guilt over polluting the atmosphere.
Flight to New York? Plant a tree. Three litre Mercedes-Benz? Fund wind energy in Africa.
The most pertinent, recent example of this sort of “guilt-offsetting” is perhaps when (Prince) Harry and Meghan took private planes to Ibiza and Nice, but defended their supposed environmentalism by claiming they offset the carbon footprint.
The fact is, at a click of a button and a quick online banking transaction, it’s possible to legitimise our polluting behaviours and continue with our climate-destroying lifestyles without the weight of our complicity and culpability. But is that really painting the whole picture?
I’d like to think it’s not the case for most people who are choosing to offset their carbon footprint, and most of all I’d like to believe that it’s not the case for me. What’s more, I’d like to try to sell you the idea that it’s a really good idea, and that it’s good that people are doing it even if it does come from a place of guilt.
For people who really want to reduce their impact on the environment, of course the greatest way for you to reduce your carbon (GHG) footprint (unless you’re taking flights once a week), is to change your diet. It’s well documented by now that opting for a plant-based (vegan) diet can drastically reduce your carbon footprint, and if you’re not there yet then taking steps in that direction is perhaps the place to start. After that, transport is the big one to tackle: taking the bus (or even better, cycling) instead of driving; taking the train instead of flying. And after that, avoiding fast fashion, buying less and buying better, choosing second-hand and limiting food miles are all good goals to aim for.
Transport is where I’ve had the most difficulty myself. I depend on my (diesel) car to get to places where public transport could turn a 30 minute drive into a 1.5 hour adventure with a train and two buses, and still cost three times as much. I can’t afford to change it for a hybrid, and I can’t get by without it. So that’s where carbon offsetting has come in for me. Aware that the use of my car is what probably makes up the majority of my carbon footprint, I came to the decision that if I can’t avoid it, I might as well do something to make up for it.
It’s not been about legitimising a completely unnecessary, excessive and ultimately climate-destroying lifestyle, but rather about balancing the scales with my rather normal, run-of-the-mill life. Did the decision come from a place of guilt? It’s possible that it did, but then so did my decision to change to a vegetarian and then vegan diet. As did so many other decisions that I’ve taken over the years to reduce my support for products and practices that harm individuals and the planet. Guilt can sometimes be a really powerful motivator, and a catalyst for change.
Of course, the worst thing is feeling guilt for things you can’t control. I hate feeling guilty for using my car when I live in a society that requires me to move around for work and education, and where privatised ‘public’ transport means it’s extremely costly – sometimes even impossible – to get from one place to another without the use of a car. And the last thing I’d want is for someone to feel guilty for not offsetting their carbon footprint if they lack the economic means to do so. The key thing here is that we have an obligation to do what we can, not to do what we can’t.
In my case, I know it’s far cheaper for me to use my car and pay to offset the carbon footprint, than to use alternative means of transportation. I neutralise (some of) the negative impact I’m having, and to some extent I also manage to neutralise the guilt I feel about driving. Of course, it doesn’t solve problems like increasingly dangerous levels of air pollution in cities, but it does neutralise the overall amount of Green House Gases (GHG) a person contributes to the big picture.
The main reason I feel optimistic about the idea of carbon offsetting is one simple economic rule: supply and demand. Simply put, if guilt – combined with an increasing environmental awareness – leads consumers to pay a little extra when booking flights, or to pay a monthly amount to offset their lifestyle’s footprint, that money is placing demand on reforestation and sustainable energy schemes.
The double-edged sword of capitalism is the fact that if someone is willing to pay for something, the market will ensure someone is there to supply that demand. What we are witnessing currently are the very negative extremes of this… that if we’re willing to pay for meat, there will be people willing to cut down and burn the rainforests and willing to cut animals’ throats. But the flip-side of that is that if we’re willing to pay to plant trees, there will equally be someone there to do the work. It’s this simple economic rule that has allowed veganism to thrive in the UK, since increasing market demand has lead companies to develop, stock and even fervently advertise new vegan options. Does it matter that some of the demand comes from people doing it because it’s a trend? Or people who eat vegan one, two or three days a week? Or people who order the vegan main but then a dairy sundae for dessert? Of course not! The market doesn’t care about people’s motivations, it’s the money that talks.
But not only do I see some reasons to be positive in carbon offsetting, I also believe it to be absolutely necessary to reach net zero carbon emissions as a country. It’s unrealistic to expect an entire economy to transform to meet a zero-emissions utopia in just a few years through reduction alone, and it would be counter-productive to mass manufacture electric cars and solar panels left, right and centre (which themselves have a considerable carbon footprint) and to essentially write-off millions of older vehicles. Reaching net zero necessarily has two sides to it: reduction, and offsetting. One the one hand, we reduce the ‘new’ emissions, for example by promoting electric cars, funding renewable energy, subsidising public transport etc. whilst on the other hand, we invest in reforestation, carbon-capturing technology and other ways to offset the carbon being released from already existing technologies and industries.
Of course, the ideal scenario is for this to be a temporary measure, and for the relationship between reduction and offsetting to change over time. For example, if at the beginning we rely on 20% reduction of emissions and 80% offsetting to meet net zero, then after a decade it could be 50% and 50%, and after another decade or two 90% reduction and only 10% offsetting. In an ideal world (clearly not this one), even after reaching 100% reduction and having achieved a net zero economy, a country could still choose to invest in carbon capturing technologies (like trees, they’re the best tech) as a means of becoming carbon positive, meaning it is actually capturing more carbon than it is emitting.
Really, carbon offsetting could be incorporated into government policy on a huge scale in order to reach net zero. Taxes could be placed on the most polluting products and services, and go directly into purchasing land for reforestation, developing green technology and subsidising public transport. A tax on aviation fuel could pay for subsidised trains. A tax on non-electric or non-hybrid vehicles could pay for tree-planting. Even better, higher income taxes on the wealthiest few could pay to repair the damage done to the poorest communities of the world, who pay the biggest consequences for climate change when they’ve contributed the least to the problem.
The bottom line is, there’s a lot that can be done to fix this mess we’ve gotten ourselves into, and carbon offsetting offers hope on both an individual and societal level. On an individual level, it seems to me that an average person living in Western society can only reduce their carbon footprint so much. Ultimately even taking the bus to work entails a certain amount of GHG emissions, as does eating the least polluting diet and charging your mobile phone. So once we’ve reduced as much as possible, carbon offsetting offers that extra step for those who have the means and the desire to take it.
If you’re interested in offsetting your carbon footprint, I recommend Offset Earth. They are transparent about their spending and provide monthly certificates of how many tonnes of CO2 (‘carbon credits’) have been prevented from going into the atmosphere or have been removed from it, and the projects supported are certified by Gold Standard.
You can see my Offset Earth profile here to get an idea of how it works.