Carbon Offsets
Zero Waste

How Do Carbon Offsets Work? (7 Things You Need to Know!)

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If you are a human being living on planet Earth, you have a carbon footprint! 

Luckily, there are things we can do that help us reduce our carbon footprint and that’s how I became interested in carbon offsets! 

I first came across the concept of offsetting my carbon emissions when I was booking a flight – to see my mum in another country – and, at the time of check out, the airline I was flying with politely asked me if I wanted to ‘offset’ the carbon emissions from my flight? 

Of course, I wanted to offset my emissions and board my plane with a clean conscious and possibly a cleaner planet! 

But was I really helping the environment by paying the carbon offset fee? Was it just a feel-good moment or was I trying to feel less guilty about it? Was it a fee, a donation, or a tax? How does carbon offset work?

Well, I did pay for my carbon offset but, I still had more questions than answers. 

Here are my main questions – with the best possible answers I could find – if you find yourself as confused as I was! 

Of course, the first thing was to find out what carbon offsets actually are!

What are carbon offsets?

Think of an old-fashioned scale – on one side you have actions that generate a lot of carbon emissions (like flying), on the other side you have things that are positive for the environment (like planting trees or installing solar panels for energy generation), and you want the positive side of the scale to get heavier! 

A lot of people see it ‘carbon offsets’ as a ‘tax’ to be paid when generating carbon! For me, I generated carbon dioxide as a result of flying and I invested in some tree-planting project – trees help to absorb carbon dioxide! 

However, that does not mean one action cancelled the other! 

Are carbon offsets a tax, a donation or a fee?

In my flight’s case, the fee I paid was purely voluntary – so I don’t consider it a tax. 

However, I do like to think of the benefits that the project I invested my money in may bring to society – which, I think, is a bit like paying taxes that will fund lots of things society benefits from such as education or road infrastructure. 

In some parts of the world, the taxation system has caught up with carbon offsetting and there are some schemes legislated as part of the taxation system.

Does carbon offset really work?

Offsetting projects do not reduce the amount of carbon produced – my flight still generated tons of greenhouse gases! 

So, what I did was really an extra investment towards a forestry project that aims at rejuvenating a native forest! While I am aware that changing my polluting ‘habits’ will probably make a greater impact on the planet, trees are excellent at absorbing carbon and rebuilding native forests can make a positive impact and help to shift the balance of my scale. 

What are carbon offset projects?

There are many projects around the world aiming at offsetting carbon.

The most common ones are renewable energy projects (typically solar and wind energy), clean water and forest conservation or rejuvenation. These types of projects can all be beneficial in terms of climate action. 

Replacing fossil fuel-generated energy with solar or wind is great news for planet Earth as electricity production – obtained by burning fossil fuels – is one of the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions. 

Remember science lessons on photosynthesis? Trees are very efficient at absorbing carbon dioxide, they need it for their energy! Trees remove carbon from the atmosphere and release oxygen. If you think trees are cool, you are right! 

Trees remove carbon from the atmosphere and release oxygen

While the benefits of trees are indisputable, forestry projects require extra caution. I certainly would like to make sure that trees I helped plant (financially speaking) will not end up being bulldozed down the track. It is important to make sure there are protections in place to make such investments ‘future-proof’. 

Equally important is to make sure that projects ‘don’t just plant trees’, but plant the right trees in the right place. Trees that are not part of the native flora of the region can turn into invasive pests and do more damage than good. So, forestry projects should definitely be focused on native plants and rejuvenation of natural habitat.      

Who verifies carbon offset projects?

That is a fair question! 

A lot of people will come across carbon offsets when booking a flight, just like me. However, not many of them provide details on how they will actually spend that extra money they are asking you to pay to offset your flight. 

Most airlines operate under national and international regulations. So, I trust they are not doing anything suspicious with my money. Said that, I do hope airlines do better and start providing more information. 

A good exception is Australian company Qantas, who provides easy-to-read information and links to projects they support. 

Outside the airline industry, you can look for certifications issued by organizations specialized in carbon standards such as American Carbon Registry, California Cap and Trade Program, Climate Action Reserve, Verified Carbon Standard. 

Where can I buy carbon offsets?

Flights generate greenhouse gases

Airlines is an obvious one for those who are specifically interested in offsetting the emissions created by their flight. The big advantage of buying carbon offsets through an airline is convenience and price – they are often reasonably priced. 

Outside of the airline industry, you can check Ecologi. One of the things I like about this company is the level of detail they provide about their projects. You can also sign up for regular contributions for a small monthly amount.

Should I invest in carbon offsets when I hardly fly?

The short answer is yes, if you want to balance off the scale. 

Personally, I am scared of flying and only do it when I really have no other choice, so I hardly fly! But I, like most human beings, contribute to emissions. Things like traditional heating/air conditioning systems, for example, are also big polluters. The same goes for cars (especially the ones with big engines) burning fuel!

Final Thoughts on Carbon Offsets

While investing funds in carbon offset programs does not cancel the impact left by your footprint, there are important environmental projects funded by these programs. And I can’t think of a better investment than the ones having a positive impact on our planet. 

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