What’s really happening when I offset my travel at a website or with an airline? 

What's really happening when I offset my travel at a website or with an airline? The Editors Santa Fe, New Mexico

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Dear question-asker,

Thank you for lobbing this softball right into my rhetorical wheelhouse. The quick answer to your question is that I haven’t the foggiest clue what’s really happening when you offset your travel and—problematically—pretty much no one else does, either. So next time you consider the purchase of carbon credits, keep these three words in mind: Don’t do it. Nothing annoys me more than to see some fancy event like the Academy Awards boast that it’s completely carbon neutral because its organizers bought carbon offsets for everyone there. Who are they kidding? In my book Greasy Rider I even take the prophet Al Gore to task for claiming he leads a carbon neutral life because he buys offsets to cancel out his private-jet travel and immense energy consumption. Some critics—me included—compare this system to medieval indulgences, when rich sinners were absolved from bad deeds by paying others to perform good works. Except in this case, the so called “good works” are dubious.

The largest of many problems with carbon offsets is that there’s no regulatory agency in the US overseeing where your money goes. If you spend $5 to plant a tree, how much of that money is going to the actual tree planting? Is the company actually planting a tree? Was the land cleared by a gas-guzzling bulldozer before the tree was planted? What kind of tree was planted? Was there a bunch of carbon dioxide in the soil that was unwittingly released during the planting?

The Tufts Climate Initiative at Tufts University found that half of offset companies operate for profit, and some allocate up to 75 percent of revenue on overhead. There are no set rates for what should be paid to offset, say, someone’s flight from New York to Los Angeles. And it’s not unheard of for an offset company to direct its funds to the cleanup of a dump that was already required by law to be cleaned by its owners, or the construction of a wind farm that was already going to be built, anyway.

Anja Kollmuss, one of the Tufts report’s authors told me, “If I could give advice to people, I would say, do offsets as a last resort because they cost you money. There are so many ways you can reduce your emissions that will save you money, like by buying an energy-efficient refrigerator, or insulating your home better.” Well said.

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