I've heard just about every argument under the sun when discussing the greenhouse gas offsets model with friends and colleagues. After hearing these arguments for the first time, I often wondered whether the comments were justified or whether they were just a pile of excuses for not making the voluntary step (in the context of travel). For the purposes of this article, "carbon offsets" and "greenhouse gas offsets" are used interchangeably. Although carbon dioxide is considered an important greenhouse gas (GHG), it is not the only GHG that is offset through the numerous programs available worldwide.
Those that are not as familiar with all forms of carbon offsetting often link the concept immediately to reforestation or tree planting which can produce a carbon sink and help an individual, group or organization achieve a 'climate neutral' status. While this is a common form of carbon offsetting, there are various other types of useful offset projects. This is important because a lot of controversy surrounding offsets seems to have its roots in reforestation project criticism.
Although many organizations and individuals invest in GHG offsets irrespective of travel (e.g. Offsetting industrial operations), a significant driver for the birth of this model is the pollution caused by our local and international travel. While road transportation obviously amounts to a large portion of world CO2 emissions, the intensity (impact per passenger km) and diversity of air travel stands out as well. In addition to altering atmospheric concentrations of CO2, ozone and methane, airplane emissions lead to the formation of contrails while emitting water vapor, sulphur oxides, nitric oxides, nitrogen dioxide and soot8.
Although there seems to be sufficient evidence linking our travels (particularly by car and plane) to global warming and atmospheric degradation, many travellers are hesitant to take that next step to offset their emissions while away from home. Yes, not everyone feels strongly enough about the environment to pay more for a trip voluntarily...but among those that do, I believe this unwillingness has its roots with both the public and the "carbon neutral" companies. I feel both must put forth more effort to keep GHG offsets transparent and useful. When it comes to investing in carbon or greenhouse gas offsets, the onus is on you as the consumer to ensure you are contributing to a true and efficient offset program. By doing your research and investing only in companies that have taken all the appropriate steps, you will help to add more credibility to certification programs and spur organizations to improve their business and operate more responsibly.
Foundations such as the Gold Standard makes one's decision much easier as they work to alleviate the major concerns surrounding this environmental economic model and provide a label to carbon offsetting projects. To ease your research efforts, independent websites simplify the process by allowing you access to a useful database of GHG offset companies with an unbiased rating included. These companies have been emerging fast from out of the woodwork so it is important to know who is legit and who is not - most importantly, knowing where your investment is going.
After doing more research myself, I am convinced that the process of purchasing carbon/greenhouse gas offsets can be fair and rewarding, and also of lasting benefit to the environment. I will also agree with what David Suzuki said when I saw him on the "If You Were Prime Minister Tour" - that at least in the short term, as we more towards cleaner technologies and methods, carbon offsets help to fill the gap. A certain amount of trust is ultimately put on to the offset company and also on a 3rd party to ensure the project is controlled and streamlined, but with the maturity of certification and carbon offset organizations, many purchasers believe this is a non-issue.
In conclusion, I'm not going to start naming celebrities and musicians who swear by carbon offsets while on tour - I'll spare you the lame angle. Whether you have already supported offset projects or are thinking about it in the future, even Pearl Jam knows to do their homework before jumping into it blind. Oops, that one slipped.
James Nash is a climate scientist with Greatest Planet (www.greatestplanet.org). Greatest Planet is a non-profit environmental organization specialising in carbon offset investments.
James Nash is solely responsible for the contents of this article.