Wondering how effective carbon offsetting schemes really are?
You’re not alone. From the different types of scheme available to controversies surrounding their effectiveness, understanding carbon recapture can be confusing and overwhelming.
We believe that reducing emissions should always come first, but that offsetting can be a useful addition when done right. We spoke to our friends at Mossy.earth about the subject, to get an overview of when and how we should offset our travel.
Carbon Offsetting Your Travel
Travellers and the travel industry are no exceptions to the wave of organisations exploring how to become carbon neutral as we race to reduce emissions. Stringent sustainability goals set by the UN to reach net zero emissions by 2050 have put the climate crisis high on the agenda for many consumers, employees, and organisations.
One avenue travel companies pursue to help conscious customers deal with travel-related emissions is offering the chance to contribute to carbon offsetting schemes. Most regularly we see this in offsetting flights. At first glance, these voluntary schemes seem to tick the ‘sustainable travel’ box. However, on further inspection it’s not always as simple as that. Confusing terminology and potential pitfalls of carbon offsetting can mean your efforts to reduce emissions result in the opposite – a negative environmental impact.
What is Carbon Offsetting?
The purpose of carbon offsetting is to achieve a “net zero” impact from your carbon-emitting activities. This is done by making donations or investments in climate change mitigation projects that draw greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, or stop it from entering in the first place.
To illustrate the numbers, a transatlantic flight from New York to Frankfurt emits around 1 ton of CO2. Some estimates suggest that 4 trees are needed to re-capture these emissions over a period of 50-100 years.
What does it mean to be carbon neutral or carbon positive?
With so many climate-related buzz words circulating the web, it is easy to see how confusion can kick in. To clarify the main terms around carbon offsetting, the following definitions show some useful comparisons.
Carbon Neutral and Carbon Zero:
Both refer to carbon-emitting activities being balanced against carbon-storing activities in order to have a “net zero” effect on the environment.
Climate Positive and Carbon Positive:
These describe activities that result in more carbon being stored than emitted, hence the “overall” positive impact on the environment.
How Does Carbon Offsetting Work?
The main methods used to take/keep carbon out of the atmosphere via carbon offsetting schemes are:
- Planting trees
- Investment in green energies and clean water programmes
- Carbon capture projects.
The environmental process of capturing carbon is called carbon sequestration. Trees fulfil a vital role in nature’s carbon cycle by removing carbon stably from the atmosphere and storing it in long-term reservoirs.
Is carbon offsetting good or bad? What are the problems it faces?
It’s complicated: there is an abundance of carbon offsetting projects in operation, however, unknowing to many consumers, a large number are not effective in the overall fight against climate change.
For instance, a large proportion of voluntary carbon offsetting in North America goes towards funding flaring-methane projects which reduce methane, but still emit carbon.
In the case of carbon offsetting to stop deforestation of existing forests, it’s difficult to show that trees aren’t just being cut down elsewhere instead.
Additionally, carbon offsetting relies on the idea that carbon sequestration would not have taken place were it not for your individual contribution. But these claims can be dubious – the money you pay may have no direct impact on the amount of carbon sequestered – casting further doubt on many projects’ effectiveness.
In fact, if you don’t dig into where your money goes, you could be funding a tree planting project that is detrimental or even disastrous for the environment.
Projects which use non-native tress species and monoculture forests can degrade the land, reduce biodiversity, and increase acidification of soils and rivers. Worst case outcomes of these offsets have the potential to actually exacerbate flooding and wildfires.
With such controversy floating about, some companies have decided to pull the plug on carbon offsetting where standards cannot be met reliably.
How can I effectively offset my travel?
If you are still keen to off-set, the following key bench marks can help you navigate the minefield of finding quality projects. Look for:
- Consistent Transparency – without transparent reporting you can’t effectively evaluate how your money is being spent and ensure a positive environmental return on your investment.
- Accountability for the wider context – does the project work towards overall environmental health and are there any impacts on surrounding ecosystems? How accurately is your contribution being monitored?
- Accurate valuations of carbon – avoid cheaply valued carbon. For example, Easyjet set their valuation/ton of CO2 at a fraction of the European Trading System (ETS) carbon valuation. Additionally, Easyjet doesn’t consider other flight-related emissions in its evaluation, which can increase carbon emissions threefold. For these reasons, we can be pretty confident that Easyjet significantly under-estimate the amount of carbon they need to off-set per flight.
What are carbon credits?
Carbon credit schemes allow those who cannot reduce, remove, or avoid emissions to pass the onus onto another party to do so by “trading” carbon credits. A carbon credit is equal to one ton of carbon dioxide.
Participants of carbon credit schemes are allotted a certain number of credits, with the aim of reducing the overall number of credits on the market over time. Usually this applies to multi-national corporations or nations. Companies or nations who want or need to emit more carbon can buy more carbon credits from others who have not used up all theirs.
The murky levels of transparency and lack of standardisation in trading carbon credits has led to widespread questions around the effectiveness of this mechanism. Monetising pollution in such ways often offers carbon credits as a “green-washing” solution – allowing companies to pay off their sins rather than change their actions.
A different approach to Carbon Offsetting
While carbon offsetting is a means of reducing our impact and shows motivation for change, it is just one solution needed to address a climate problem of multiple magnitudes. At Mossy Earth we have created a carbon offsetting subscription that works on addressing the big picture. Our approach to climate change mitigation revolves around these principles.
- To primarily restore and protect ecosystems and promote biodiversity health
This approach reaps a variety of environmental benefits, one of which is sequestering carbon.
Our reforestation methodology focuses on improving species diversity and functionality so trees can provide vital ecosystem services such as soil stabilization and water purification as well as habitats for wildlife.
We avoid quick fixes, but instead look for long-term solutions to match the longevity of the climate challenge we face. Thriving and resilient native forests offer us the chance to capture and store carbon reliably for many years, potentially centuries, to come.
- Trust and Transparency are at the heart of our operations
To address the issue of transparency in so many so-called carbon offsetting projects, we use technology to implement measures which ensure complete transparency and accountability.
Our members receive imagery and GPS coordinates for their trees; detailed mapping; before and after photos; on-the-ground updates and the opportunity to vote on new projects.
As the survival of our newly planted trees is paramount to overall project success, we closely monitor the progress of each site so our trees safely reach maturity, and saplings can be replanted when needed.
- Accuracy in our Calculations
Research into the latest peer-reviewed literature in addition to site-specific factors inform our estimates of how much each tree can sequester.
“To restore stability to our planet, therefore, we must restore its biodiversity, the very thing we have removed. It is the only way out of this crisis that we ourselves have created. We must rewild the world!”
– Sir David Attenborough
The role of rewilding in climate change
In agreement with ecologists who have seen the splendours of our planet, we too believe that the way to revive our natural world and its defence systems is through large-scale and long-term rewilding. Interventions such as reintroducing absent key species and reconnecting habitats through wildlife corridors are a few examples of rewilding’s holistic approach to rebuilding ecosystems.
Revealing research also backs up the necessity of rewilding for climate change mitigation. If we restored just 15% of degraded lands in critical areas, we would have the potential to save 60% of expected species extinction and store 30% of the post-Industrial Revolution rise in CO2.
There are various ways to contribute to rewilding from contributing to a rewilding project to rewilding your garden. At the very least, spreading awareness of its role in carbon mitigation will pay dividends in the long run.
Low Impact Living
It is extremely encouraging to witness the trend of environmentally conscious travellers who wish to lessen their footprint on their travels. We believe this positive shift in attitude also shows people’s willingness to adopt more eco-friendly practices in other lifestyle areas too. This is why we created a range of resources and tools to help people assess their current footprint and make practical changes to reduce it.
Mossy Earth’s Carbon footprint calculator and Low Impact Living guides allow you to complete a detailed self-assessment and gain insightful knowledge on diet, energy, lifestyle, travel and waste emission reductions.
We firmly believe every effort should be made to firstly reduce emissions before considering carbon offsets. In travel, that could mean taking fewer long and short haul flights, aiming to book low emission/waste accommodation and taking part in activities that boost local ecosystems. In this way, we focus on minimising our need to take from the extremely limited global carbon budget, and give ourselves the best possible chance of reaching a carbon neutral world one day. Learn more about how to be a more sustainable traveller here.
Thanks to the team at Mossy Earth for putting together this article.
If you’re interested in learning more about Mossy Earth’s work, you can check out their methodology for carbon sequestration and research here.