A few months ago, I was in the San Francisco Airport flying back to Japan, and I saw for the first time a carbon offset kiosk.
The kiosk resembled an ATM, and I wondered if any traveler had mistakenly tried to pull money out, only to realize the machine pulled money in.
Not surprisingly, the kiosk was empty, while the Ghirardelli Chocolate kiosk next door had a line 5 people deep.
Over the last few years, carbon offset credits have popped up on my radar.
The basic idea is that every time you travel (flying, car, train,etc), you generate greenhouse gas emissions. To compensate, you can pay a certain amount (depending on your type of travel and distance) to support programs around the world working to minimize those harmful gases. Often you can buy these carbon offset credits optionally when buying plane tickets or car rentals, or you can go online to one of many carbon offset brokers.
(On a funny side note, you can even register for carbon offset credits as a wedding present!)
While in theory I’m not against the idea, much of the current research on it is really negative. This article , in particular, published by the Christian Science Monitor likened this industry to the free roaming “Wild Wild West ” and questions whether buying the credits does any good.
I’m committed to a low consumption/minimal impact approach to life, but I won’t be buying these credits any time soon. Here are my reasons:
1. As an industry, these carbon offset programs aren’t well regulated and there’s great potential for fraud and abuse.
2. Prices for one’s carbon impact vary greatly from one company to the next. I calculated my carbon footprint impact for my trip from SF to Tokyo on 3 different sites, and got 3 different prices, ranging from $23 US to $103. What’s the fair price?
3. With many programs, there’s no guarantee that trees actually get planted or that wind power is implemented. In some cases, programs are started and then abandoned, or they create some other social impact such as uprooting people who live there.
4.I don’t like the sense of “paying” for my “sins.”
5. Even programs that are certified by third parties may be problematic, as there are different standards for validation, oversight, and follow up across the board.
The article above reveals that many reputable environmental groups acknowledge potential for scam, and propose guidelines for choosing a program wisely. This guide by David Susuki offers more specific advice.
However, in my view, rather than paying every time I travel, it makes more sense to adopt a lifestyle change instead. I’ll be more careful about the number of trips I take and how I get there. I’d also rather make regular donations to programs in my vicinity that I can observe and evaluate on my own.
Have you ever bought carbon offset credits? How do you feel about them? Do you have any positive experience with carbon offset programs? If you have differing reasons, I’m open to your insights…