Carbon offsets

Airplane

According to a carbon footprint calculator my air travel between 2010 and 2012 produced 58,005 pounds of CO2 per year! I flew for work, vacation, and family visits these years – and several of my science travel reports on this blog were based on locations I visited on these trips.

Several companies allow you to “offset” the CO2 you produced as part of travel of home energy use. But what’s the science behind carbon offsetting?

The idea behind carbon offsetting is that you pay a company to invest in green technology, forestation, or anything else that would reduce CO2 by the same amount you added to the world with your lavish lifestyle. This is the same mechanism used by companies that advertise “carbon neutral” travel or events.

Scientifically, you’re still producing CO2 with your air travel, and it’s still having an effect on our overall climate. There is no guarantee that what you’re investing in carbon offsets will really reduce greenhouse gases by the same amount as you added to the world. It’s really hard to measure exactly how much CO2 is sequestered in offset programmes, and carbon offset companies can’t guarantee that what you paid them for carbon offset credits will eventually reduce CO2 by the amount you intended. It’s also difficult to predict what the long-term effect will be from the current increase, regardless of a future reduction.

The most convincing scientific theory of carbon offsets comes from the field of psychology. What you’re actually doing when you buy carbon offsets for an airplane trip is making yourself feel less guilty about your environmentally unfriendly habits. A recent study shows that people will even increase their greenhouse emitting activity if they know it’s going to be offset by carbon offset credits. [PDF]

I just got back from a trip to Switzerland, and produced another 440 pounds of CO2. For $5.95 I can pay a company to offset it, but I think I’ll hang on to the guilt for a while so that I can think about more direct ways to reduce my own footprint, rather than simply paying someone so that I don’t have to think about it anymore.

 Photo by Francois Roche on Flickr.

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2 responses to “Carbon offsets

  1. Doesn’t the methane gas containment option actually and immediately have a beneficial effect on climate change? More so than, say, building a windmill or planting a tree, since it immediately takes a greenhouse gas out of commission (or at least renders it less greenhouse-y). Though, I have no knowledge of how efficient or carbon-neutral the actual process of methane containment really is….

    • True, but then the argument remains that that carbon/methane comes from another source than the plane journey, and might still show the effect of people flying more because they feel better about offsetting something.

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