I recently attended Unleash 2019, a global innovation lab to accelerate solutions that address the Sustainable Development Goals. It was held in Shenzhen, China and there were 1200 people from over 160 countries in attendance. I was super excited to attend but then realised the intense carbon footprint from air travel. The answer to the air travel was to carbon offset the miles. However, carbon offsetting is not the answer to climate change. In fact it can do more harm than good. Carbon offsets can play a role, however it often doesn’t solve the root cause of climate change.
At the opening ceremony for Unleash, the organisers announced they had carbon offset the air travel as well as local area transportation for the event. This was really impressive as they committed to offsetting 1 111 tonnes of carbon which resulted in planting 9500 trees in China. After the announcement I had a few people ask what carbon offsetting was and how it works. I am by no means an expert in this space, however here are some key points to give an overview of the carbon offset topic.
What Is Carbon Offsetting Anyway?
Many of our activities emit carbon dioxide which has a negative impact on the environment and is a key driver for climate change. Activities including transportation, food consumption, energy usage and business operations are large contributors to climate change.
Here is a good summary of how carbon dioxide impacts the environment and ultimately climate change. According to Help Save Nature, ‘Carbon dioxide is one of the greenhouse gases that are responsible for maintaining the earth’s temperature. The earth reflects around 30% of the light that it receives from the sun, in the form of infrared radiation. If this reflected energy were to escape, the temperature of the earth would drop to somewhere around -20° C. However, the greenhouse gases present in the atmosphere, trap the energy radiated by the earth’s surface and re-radiate it in all directions. This increases the effective temperature of the Earth, making it suitable for sustaining life. However, excessive amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere can lead to a drastic increase in the average temperature of the Earth. This phenomenon is termed as global warming, and is a serious environmental concern today.‘
Carbon Offsetting In Action
At a basic level, your carbon footprint is the overall amount of carbon dioxide used by an individual or business. Carbon offsetting pays for activities that minimise the impact of carbon dioxide on the environment. These can include tree planting, renewable energy and climate adaptation projects. It seems simple in theory, but the complexity comes in the ethics and the delivery of the offsetting activities.
Carbon offsetting should only be a solution if carbon reducing behaviour cannot be changed. For Unleash, there are things they could do to minimise the impact and then carbon offset the rest. For example, have regional events rather than one big event in one location. This would minimise the overall flight miles.
Here are the steps for carbon offsetting:
1. Reduce Emissions Before Offsetting
For this article we are exploring carbon offsetting because of the need for air travel. However, air travel accounts for 2% of all CO2 emissions. The best course of action is to reduce your daily footprint, focusing on the below activities. Here are a few tips to reduce your impact:
- Change your lightbulbs to energy efficient ones
- Reduce air conditioning and heating consumption
- Line dry your clothes
- Use public transport and bicycles more
- Reduce air travel
- Buy locally produced food
These small changes can have a big, ongoing impact.
If there are some unavoidable things like flying, then do it modestly! A World Bank study showed that a Business Class seat has a footprint three times that of those of us up the back - and First Class can be nine times as carbon intensive.
2. Calculate Carbon Footprint.
After we have reduced our personal carbon emissions as much as possible, we need to calculate the remainder of our carbon footprint. There are a few tools out there for individuals and many businesses have consultants who do this. For individuals, here are some great tools:
- UN Carbon Offset Platform : A consolidated platform with resources, quizzes, calculators and ways to contribute to projects addressing climate change. You can also purchase projects or activities by the tonne through the platform which makes it a consolidated experience.
- Carbonfootprint.com : A basic tool to calculate your carbon dioxide. However the travel tool didn’t have many of the locations.
- Meet the Greens: This is one of the better tools. It is aimed at kids to help them understand carbon emissions. It has a calculator, videos and tools to engage kids with climate change in a helpful way.
- Australian Greenhouse Calculator: This is an effective tool made for Australians which is super helpful (you don’t have to worry about miles or pounds. The underlying data is also for the Australian context). From online forums it is the most helpful and uses research from RMIT’s Sustainability Innovation Lab.
- QANTAS Carbon Offset: This is only for travel, however QANTAS has the largest carbon offset program of any airline. You can carbon offset when you book your travel online and frequent flyer members receive 10 points for every dollar spent offsetting. This is a good option as many travel agencies do not allow you to offset your travel.
For a bit more context, Qantas use the carbon offset purchases from customers for the Fly Carbon Neutral program, which is verified by the Australian government’s National Carbon Offset Standard (NCOS). The airlines do not charge an administration fee or take any cut.
Managing your ongoing impact
Most of these will come up with how many tonnes you use. The UN Carbon Offset platform is intuitive and benchmarks your usage compared to your country and the globe. However, the Australian Greenhouse Calculator is the most informative and accurate for Australian audiences.
Calculating your footprint can be helpful to offset but it can also be a good way to quantify your impact and then use it as a benchmark to reduce activities. Doing an annual or quarterly assessment can help to find areas in your life to reduce your impact on the environment.
3. Pick and Pay For an Offsetting Activity
This is where it starts to get a bit tricky. You now have the amount of tonnes you want to offset. The next step is finding projects or activities that are helping the environment. This can be done in two main ways – official and unofficial.
The official market
The official carbon offsets have accreditation which basically says that x amount of carbon = y amount of project money. These often give peace of mind as it is quantifiable, however the projects are often inefficient. For example, the United Nations allows you to purchase Certified Emission Reduction units (CERs) through their Clean Development Mechanism which has a range of projects. The challenge with these is that they are often really bureaucratic and inefficient. But if you want peace of mind, this is a good option.
The unofficial or DIY market
This is my preferred option. After getting a rough cost figure, you can find a charity. Or you can also donate to charities who are tackling climate change related issues in an effective way. What It Costs has a good blog post about some estimates for carbon costs.
For tree planting, Fifteen Trees is an effective charity. With tree planting, it is important to look at how charities are not just planting trees but also maintaining them to ensure ongoing carbon capture. Fifteen Trees uses local groups like Landcare who use indigenous trees and have mechanisms for ongoing maintenance.
For energy efficiency in developing countries, Pollinate Energy is a great option. They work with local people to sell low cost, high quality products on a lease to buy basis. This is moving communities away from kerosene lamps and coal fired heating/ovens.
Carbon Offsetting Challenges
As stated previously, ultimately, the answer to reducing carbon footprint is to change behaviours and activities.
In my opinion, carbon offsetting is a bit like going to the gym to justify eating a hamburger. It works on the assumption that these two things negate each other. The better option is to just not eat the burger and find a healthier option. However, humans are often irrational and pleasure seeking so this approach often does not work in reality.
Carbon offsetting can be contentious for the ‘hamburger’ reason. It ultimately positions it as a solution so people don’t have to adapt and change their behaviour, which is the central issue with climate change.
As stated above, another criticism of carbon offsetting is the efficiency of the projects that the offset money goes to. For example, according to Ethical Consumer, a calculation of the cost of offsetting with Certified Emissions Reductions calculated that on average, only about 30% of the money makes it to actual projects. The rest is taken by verification costs, overheads, and project developers’ profits.
This is the overarching issue with the development sector so it is wise to check how much actually goes to the work.
Number one priority should be reducing your consumption as much as possible. Remember that carbon offsetting is just like going to the gym to justify eating the hamburger- it doesn’t reach the root cause of the issue. To start making systemic change we need to change our behaviours and look for cleaner, greener options for our life.
For the leftover emissions, donating to on the ground charities is my personal favourite way to make an impact. Finding charities that are helping to change the system as well as developing initiatives for change are the ones that will have the greatest overall impact.
The carbon offset space is continuing to evolve and is sometimes unnecessarily complicated. My advice is to keep it simple by focusing on reducing your CO2 emissions first and then have a regular charity who you engage with that is solving the environmental challenges associated with climate change.