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Environment: treading lightly on the Earth
Environment: treading lightly on the Earth

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5.2.1 Voluntary carbon offsets

One of the ways that individuals can shift the responsibility for emission reductions from ‘I’ and ‘we’ to ‘they’ is by paying for so-called voluntary carbon offsets. A carbon offset is a reduction in emissions resulting from a carbon-saving project undertaken elsewhere – often in a developing country – voluntarily paid for by individuals to compensate for (offset) the carbon footprint arising from their activities. (Organisations, such as businesses, can also buy offsets.) For example, many airlines and other companies offer carbon offsets to compensate for the emissions from personal or business flights. One energy supply company is offering ‘green’ gas to consumers by including some methane biogas generated from waste and offsetting the remaining emissions by paying into carbon-saving projects such as efficient cooking stoves and biogas plants in developing countries.

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Figure 16 The carbon emissions from air travel are often offset by airlines

However, the benefits of carbon offset schemes have been questioned. The small amount charged by airlines for offsetting the emissions of a flight, for example, bears little relationship to the actual cost of totally eliminating that amount of GHGs from the atmosphere. For example, delegates to the 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference were invited to offset their flights through UN certified carbon reduction schemes, costing from 50 US cents to $5 per tonne of carbon. It meant that a delegate flying return from New York to Paris could consider their flight ‘climate neutral’ for a mere 40 cents to $4.

Tree planting schemes have also been criticised, not least because it takes years for the trees to absorb the CO2 emissions from, say, a flight made today. However, there are now some schemes that promise more worthwhile carbon offsets, as they approve only offsets which fund renewable energy and energy efficiency projects, and promote sustainable development for the local community where they take place. But whatever the type of project, a carbon offset is a payment to transfer the responsibility for reducing emissions from the person or organisation creating the emissions to someone else.

Despite such reservations, the carbon calculator allows you to offset some of your emissions, especially if you can’t reduce your footprint by individual or household actions. The amount you (theoretically) have to pay for this is based on a realistic price for eliminating each tonne of carbon emissions, not the unrealistically low offset prices charged by airlines, etc.