SOMETHING called carbon offsetting has been in the news a fair bit lately, as celebs and members of the royal family have defended their frequent air travel by saying their flights have been offset. But what does that mean, what do carbon offsetting schemes involve and why do so many people say they’re a bad idea? And if they are so bad, what can we do instead that’s better for the planet?
To make up for environmental damage caused by harmful activities such as flying, people can pay some money to offset things like their flight’s emissions. The idea is that you pay into a scheme that removes CO2 from the air, such as by planting trees or providing new stoves to people in developing countries so that they can cook with cleaner fuel instead of chopping trees down for firewood.
“In most cases, carbon offsetting just doesn’t work,” says Mike Childs, head of science at Friends of the Earth. “Some offsetting projects are also used by companies such as oil drillers who want to pretend they’re doing good things, but are continuing to extract fossil fuels and cause huge damage to the planet. Think of it like this: offsetting is like trying to look after your teeth by paying someone else not to eat sweets.”
Dr Lucie Middlemiss, an associate professor in sustainability at the University of Leeds School of Earth and Environment, agrees. “It’s kind of an economic fudge to make out that we’re solving something when actually it’s not really changing anything,” she told us. “It suggests we can carry on doing what we’re doing and just pay to clean up after ourselves. But there’s also a really big justice issue because the people who can afford it get to carry on while everybody else just has to change, which reinforces inequality.”
It’s also not very easy to work out if an offsetting scheme works. Your cash might go towards planting trees, but then what? “The forest might be burned, accidentally or on purpose, releasing all of the carbon at once,” says Areeba Hamid, a climate campaigner for Greenpeace UK. “Or it might be turned into paper, or furniture, or various other things, each of which would release its carbon at a different speed. When we plant it we don’t really know what will happen to it, or when.” “Since offsetting is voluntary, it won’t work,” adds Middlemiss, “because lots of people won’t choose to do it. But also it suggests that it’s the responsibility of the individual, when it’s really a society-wide problem that governments can do something about.”
The bad news for anyone who likes foreign holidays is that most people say the best thing you can do is to simply not fly. WWF told us that they see carbon offsetting as “the last step” and that you should first try to avoid or reduce harmful activities like flying and driving.