Do Carbon Offsets Work for Travel?

Whenever I buy plane tickets, I also try to buy carbon offsets. I see it as my way of canceling out my environmental impact. Am I making a difference? Are they worth the money?

Planes leave massive carbon residues. Can you pay for it? (Cristian Ghe/Flickr)
plane toxic carbon global warming climate change travel

That’s two questions, Dana. You’re only supposed to ask one. But I’ll be generous and answer both. Let me start by elaborating on the point and purpose of carbon offsets for commercial plane travel. Airline travel around the globe is immensely impactful to the environment—there’s no way around it. The FAA estimates that three percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from planes, and that’s not even mentioning the other noxious particles that aviation exhaust belches into the air.

The theory goes that if you buy carbon offsets for an extra charge with your plane ticket, you’re canceling out your footprint by helping to fund earth-saving projects. Most airlines partner with some carbon offset company to provide you with this option.

If only the setup were this clean and easy. First, different carbon offset companies use different calculations for the quantity of CO2 in your individual footprint and the price per pound. Renewable Choice tells me that a round-trip flight from Boston to Los Angeles would leave me responsible for 2,131 pounds of emissions for a total offset cost of $14.50. Terrapass gives me 2,481 pounds at a cost of $17.85.

Second, assuming that these calculations are in the right ballpark, who’s to say that your contribution is being efficiently spent? There’s no gold-standard auditing organization or government agency in the U.S. responsible for certifying the work of carbon offset companies. How much of your money is paying for administrative costs? How much of its revenues are going directly to earth-saving projects? How do you know that the work on the Superfund site it’s cleaning, or the hydroelectric dam it’s building, or the tree it’s planting wouldn’t have been done regardless of whether this company made a contribution?

In my book Greasy Rider, I wrote about a landfill that was required by law to reduce its methane emissions—and was essentially bailed out from using its own cash by a carbon-offset organization scrambling for ways to spend money on renewable projects. You need to do your own homework to find out about the organization you’re buying carbon credits from.

Finally, buying offsets doesn’t wipe away your environmental sins. (I’ll admit, I’m a sinner, too.) It simply pays off the guilt. The only true way to reduce your footprint is to live more sustainably, not pay someone to plant a tree.

Now, to actually answer your two questions: Are you making a difference by buying offsets? Yes, you are making a tiny little difference, and that’s better than nothing. And are they worth the money? Not really. You’re better off using that cash spent on airline offsets to directly make a difference in your everyday life. Cut out the middleman and take the $20 you’d use for carbon offsets and buy some compact fluorescent bulbs for your house, or put it into a pot to save for a more efficient washing machine or tank-less water heater. If you want to make a difference with airline travel, fly less—and badger the airlines to start recycling programs and stop throwing out all of the in-flight plastic cups, cardboard, and soda cans.

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