Why I Won’t Buy Carbon Offsets for Travel

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…


27 thoughts on “Why I Won’t Buy Carbon Offsets for Travel

  1. This expressed *exactly* what bothers me a bit about the carbon offset thing. I’d also rather make what feels like more “real” changes in my own lifestyle (e.g., being very conscious about buying plane tickets and using cars)…and directly supporting local programs themselves.

    • maryrichardson

      Dear Jude,
      It does make more sense to make a personal conscious commitment in everyday life, doesn’t it? Glad to read your ideas about it.

  2. I hate the idea. Paying money doesn’t take away from using these services. You can’t pay for the ‘carbon footprint’ you’ve left in the world. I agree with Jude in that I’d rather make changes and better choices in my own lifestyle and do things in my own way than “pay for my sins.” The whole idea is stupid.

    • maryrichardson

      Dear Jenny,
      Thanks for your insight and expressing your strong feeling about it. While I’m okay with the idea in theory, I’m not comfortable with it in reality… it’s funny, it’s not really a topic I’ve talked about with many of my friends, so it’s great to get other takes on it.

  3. Interesting points. Number 3 is why I have been hesitant to buy them. I am skeptical about where the money actually goes. It’s such a new idea and I’d like to see it become more official/regulated before I buy into it.

    • maryrichardson

      Dear Ekua,
      Yes… in my experience of observing well-intentioned development programs in Namibia, lots of money and materials get thrown at problems, but there’s a lot of fraud and somehow money ends up missing. I am sure there are good programs out there, but it seems complicated to figure out which ones they are!

  4. A very thoughtful response and one that needs to be taken into account when discussing carbon emissions and climate change. If there’s one thing I dislike immensely is evangelising, of the religious and woolly-liberal variety.

    Many thanks for such an articulate post.

    Greetings from London.

    • maryrichardson

      Thanks! It’s an issue I care about, so I wanted to examine many angles. It’s so interesting to get other peoples’ ideas about it too. For a time, I felt that maybe I was the only person concerned about them, but it seems like many have the same reservations.

  5. The idea of carbon offsets sounds good but in the long run, I think it’s just another symptom of Western privilege. Too hard to make a lifestyle change? Okay, just pay and then we’ll make the changes for you! Of course, it doesn’t work that way at all and I’m a little offended at the whole concept.

    • maryrichardson

      Dear Fly Girl,
      Very interesting insight. I never thought of it like that, but it does have that ring of let’s not worry about our damage and then just pay someone else to clean it up. Thanks for this comment

  6. Mary,

    I am like you, I do not like to pay for carbon offset credit, instead we can use more public transportation or use bike or walk more.

    In some places in USA, public transportation is a hassle, if it was made easy to use, I bet many people will use it and it will help the carbon offset, naturally.

    • maryrichardson

      Dear Preeti,
      I hear you. It makes me upset actually that public transport is really awkward in some places. Thanks for your comment!

  7. Glad you wrote this post. I’ve often wondered whether these carbon offsets do any good — I’ve had my doubts. My problem is that I love to travel and in particular to fly. Of course, if trains could get me to where I wanted to go I would take them, but from the US to Europe and then to points in Asia it seems to be the only choice. Either that or make such a trip a year-long once in a life type kind of thing. As much as I love the first of those two, the second isn’t possible. It’s a dilemma… xo bb

    • maryrichardson

      I feel the same dilemma! In trying to reduce my travel consumption, I’m trying to visit places I only have a real interest in and that I haven’t visited before… not just countries to check off a list. I never really traveled that way to start with as I’m fascinated by everywhere, but do I really need to visit Hawaii for a 4th time?

  8. I have never bought carbon offsets, and I agree with your concerns. Mostly, I would wonder if my money was even doing any good. I’d rather go plant a tree myself, or contribute directly to an environmental charity.

    • maryrichardson

      Dear Sarah,
      Thanks for your comment… I agree I’d want to make a tangible contribution like planting a tree or supporting a program closer to home.

  9. I’m not sure about all these arguments – to me the whole idea of Carbon Offsets just seems like upside down thinking – if you want to save the environment, then surely you should just try to travel in more eco-friendly ways, walking, cycling and using public transport. I don’t like the idea of doing something bad and then trying to make up for it through my credit card.

  10. OMG, I didn’t even know such a thing existed!!! I agree 100% about adopting lifestyle changes rather than paying for your “sins.” One of the best ways to help the world is to become a veggie…

    • maryrichardson

      Dear Andi,
      You’re not alone. I heard about them a few years ago, but never paid attention until I actually saw the kiosk in the airport. Are you vegetarian? I’ve done it through some periods of my life, but could never seem to sustain it long term. Any advice?

  11. Same like what everyone else has expressed. Seems like it’s just a way for people to give money so they don’t feel so guilty about traveling. And a lot of people feel guilty for traveling…

    • maryrichardson

      Dear Karen,
      I think you are absolutely right about people feeling guilt for traveling. For many people, it’s a luxury expense and not a necessary part of their education or life experience (as I tend to view it).

  12. rebeccabradley

    Also- and i dont know if people have mentioned this, it is a way for big businesses to appear conscious of the environment, while enabling them to not have to spend any money on it. Passing the buck to the consumer. I would watch this practice as more people use it. Wouldnt everyone be happier flying on a plane that had better fuel economy for example – or whatever could be done. Or the airline said for every x number of seats we save x amount of rainforest- wouldnt one want to fly THAT airline? (even if it cost $20 more a seat?)

    • maryrichardson

      Dear Rebecca,
      Thanks for your thoughtful response. I never even considered that aspect of it, but you’ve got an excellent point!

  13. I’m a little surprised I might be the first to disagree. I understand your skepticism and that of other readers, there’s not much regulation, different orgs quote different prices, but as someone that’s been traveling full-time for a few years, I like the notion of carbon off-setting travel.

    If your lifestyle means you drive a car, you have the option to buy a hybrid to minimize the environmental impact. If you commute to work in a city, you probably also have the option to bike or ride a bus to emit less. People get the option to recycle in most places, etc, but traveling in many developing countries I can’t, so I do my best to not buy plastic bottles and other disposable goods I expect wont get recycled. So I don’t see carbon off-setting emissions from bus trips or flights so much as easing my Western guilt or making up for my sins, but for doing a little bit more to negate my impact on the earth.

    I can’t speak personally for the efficacy of the organization, but I get a good vibe from http://www.carbonfund.org/. Just as I donate money and give my time to to non-profits that seem respectable, I feel good about this one too.

    Thanks for the chance to voice my opinion. Cheers.

    • maryrichardson

      Dear Bessie,
      Thanks for your comment! Actually, I’ve been hoping for a while that someone would offer a different perspective… like you, I truly do care about reducing my impact. It just seems like there’s so much negativity surrounding those programs. Thanks so much for sharing that program you feel good about. I’ll check it out!

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