• Sat, 7, Sep, 2019 - 5:00:AM

Greening the sky: Should you purchase carbon offsets?

The recent surge in media coverage of the burning of the Amazon aggravated many people’s eco-anxiety. You don’t need to be a climate scientist or have a sixth sense to know that deforestation of this scale doesn’t bode well for the planet. A silver lining amidst all this doom and gloom is that you can use bad news as motivation to make changes in your life. This month I made two changes: I finally bought a bike for commuting to work (more on this exciting development later) and purchased carbon offsets for the first time.

It feels good knowing that I’m choosing to fly as consciously as possible by buying offsets from both Jetstar and Air New Zealand. But can a measly $4.33 NZD really offset all the carbon emissions spewed into the atmosphere during my return trip? It seems a little too good to be true.

Based on the information currently available on the Jetstar website, it seems that the money I paid ($1.28) to fly neutral will go towards one or more of four projects: providing Tasmanian landowners with an alternative income stream to logging so they can conserve/restore native forests; increasing fuel efficient cookstove accessibility in Cambodia; helping Brazil nut harvesters in the Amazon work sustainably and conserve regions of forest; and providing income to Papua New Guinean landowners so that they can preserve and manage their forests instead of felling trees for timber.

As for the flight back with Air New Zealand, it seems that they’ll use my $3.05 contribution to buy carbon credits from a number of local and/or international projects. I say carbon credits, but apparently the current value of a single carbon credit is $21.32 NZD so what I really mean is that they’ll use my contribution to buy a fraction of a credit. However small that may seem on paper, that’s not insignificant considering a carbon credit is supposed to represent one tonne of carbon dioxide or similar greenhouse gas. The $3.05 translates to offsetting an entire 143kg of CO2 emitted on that one-way flight. Imagine if every passenger on that plane chose to offset their emissions.

But the truth is that carbon offsets are neither a get-out-of-jail-free card nor a silver bullet; the entire concept was meant to be used only as a temporary tool to expedite climate action. Niklas Hagelberg, UN Environment climate specialist says that “UN Environment supports carbon offsets as a temporary measure leading up to 2030… the danger is that it can lead to complacency”. If the carbon offset market enables people to pollute the planet with a free conscience by alleviating flight shame, but does little in changing polluting behaviours and facilitating permanent changes on a systemic scale… is the offset market really worth its salt?

And reality is always murkier than the marketing. A lot of criticism has been raised regarding the actual impact of carbon offsets, too. Because some offsets support projects that would have happened anyway. Sometimes there’s no reliability in the long term sustainability of the project; there’s no guarantee that the trees you stopped from being cut down one year won’t be cut down in the next. And perhaps your offset might prevent deforestation in one specific area where the project you’re supporting operates, but it’s very possible that unsustainable practices will just crop up in an adjacent area in the region.

The world of sustainability is an incredibly complex system full of many interdependent parts. Trying to create meaningful change with a real, measurable impact can be more difficult than it appears. Carbon offsetting is a model that obviously has limitations and room for improvement. But as a consumer, I think it’s still worth participating in this evolving system. Mindful that it shouldn’t be the only change I make. But hopeful that - for the price of less than a cup of coffee - it’s a tiny nudge that pushes society to do a little better.


  • Sustainability /
  • Climate Change /
  • Climate crisis /
  • Climate emergency /
  • Carbon credit /
  • Carbon offset /
  • Pollution /
  • Aviation /
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