Make Carbon Offsetting a Meaningful Part of Your Climate Journey
What does it take for travel and tourism to become climate positive?
A whole lot. We need rapid decarbonization of the sector, and achieve radical transformation while ensuring that the transition is fair and equitable.
Is carbon offsetting a part of the steps towards becoming climate positive? Is it a valid solution or just greenwashing? We will address these questions - and more - to better understand offsetting.
Let’s dive in!
What Does It Mean? Understanding Carbon Footprints and Offsets
Simply put, carbon offsets are credits that can be purchased to reduce emissions elsewhere, thus enabling organizations and individuals to "neutralize" their emissions. As explained by UNCCC here, investing in emission reductions elsewhere is a temporary and partial solution to contribute to the global efforts to become climate positive, and it should be considered as a way to address unavoidable emissions after all steps have been taken to reduce individuals' and organization's own emissions.
The Gold Standard, explains the carbon credits as:
Here is a quick and clear explanation of what "net zero" should mean, and how what is generally referred to as "carbon offsetting" should be understood and approached.
The goal of "net" zero emissions comes from science. To stop the planet from warming, we need to stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. However, some sources may be impossible to fully eliminate, like methane from rice cultivation or carbon dioxide from concrete (1/3)— Simon Donner (@simondonner) October 25, 2021
That's where the "net" comes in. We need uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, via tree planting or direct air capture or other means, to account for the sources which can't be eliminated. Given that, we should aim for emissions - uptake = 0 at the global level (2/3)— Simon Donner (@simondonner) October 25, 2021
Does It Work? Questions around Offsetting
With the impacts of the climate crisis intensifying every year, it’s important to embrace and promote solutions that can support our transition to a low carbon future. It’s equally important that such solutions are credible and effective.
And when it comes to the credibility and effectiveness of carbon offsetting schemes, many have voiced concerns and criticisms.
Some worry that offsetting is a way of justifying polluting behavior, and ask, is offsetting making people feel they can “assuage guilt and to make yourself feel better about high-carbon activities”? (See some of these - and other - arguments here).
These are, of course, valid concerns, and reflect some - but not all - of the realities surrounding carbon offsetting schemes. While some may be misinterpreting the purpose of carbon offsetting and abusing it as a “licensing to pollute”, many businesses and individuals who invest in carbon offsets take their climate commitments (and their responsibilities to reduce their own emissions) seriously.
Others criticize the nature of the “billion dollar carbon offsetting industry” where the promise of actually offsetting someone’s carbon emissions (i.e. the removal of one tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent from the atmosphere, for every carbon credit purchased) isn’t always being kept, and there are many reported irregularities in this industry, where “middlemen” continue to profit from selling the promise of offsetting, although the actual projects that are supposed to be reducing emissions are not producing the intended results.
Related to these legitimate concerns, one positive way the “carbon offsetting industry” has developed in recent years is that the systems to verify carbon offsetting projects have significantly improved, providing opportunities for businesses and individuals to invest in credible and valuable projects.
So What Should We Do? How Best to Approach Offsetting
In the presentation hosted by Impact Travel Alliance in April 2021 (“Demystifying Carbon Offsetting”), Sustainable Travel International provided the following guidance on what to look for when choosing a carbon offset provider, to invest in projects that are legitimate and impactful:
- Look for projects that have been third-party verified and validated. Examples of standard keepers include Gold Standard, Verra - Verified Carbon Standards (VCS), and Verra - Climate, Community & Biodiversity (CCB) Standards.
- Look into the organizations and programs providing carbon offset projects, and their practices, to ensure their transparency, quality assurance, and expertise. Credible projects should have their methodologies made publicly available, and have wide reaching benefits to communities involved.
- Support those organizations that are proactively communicating about the need for reducing emissions as the first priority, rather than simply promoting offsetting. Education and knowledge sharing is key to achieving the overall objective of transitioning to a low carbon future.
As noted earlier, becoming “carbon neutral” or achieving “net zero”, is first of all about reducing your own emissions. As such, paying for carbon offsetting projects should not be your first step in your climate journey. If you are not doing anything to reduce your own emissions but are talking about offsetting as your climate action, your claims will be (rightly) considered greenwashing.
In addition, to make sure that offsetting is a meaningful part of your overall climate journey, communicate honestly and openly about which projects you support and why, and what benefits they provide. Avoid misleading claims such as “add a small fee to enjoy your travel guilt-free”, or “reduce your carbon emissions by supporting our tree planting projects” - remembering that offsetting is investing in emission reductions elsewhere (to take responsibility for emissions that you haven’t been able to avoid), and not a way to reduce your own emissions.
What Are Tourism Businesses Doing about Offsetting?
Here are some examples of tourism businesses that demonstrate the above points.
- Arcadia Expeditions communicate clearly about which carbon offsetting projects they support and why; “Arcadia carbon compensate only through projects that are Gold Standard approved, which are seen by many NGO’s … to be the most stringent standard for carbon offsetting. We have chosen projects that target renewable energy as we believe that this addresses the central structural issues that cause climate change – that is, the world’s reliance on using fossil fuels for energy. We support projects that are based in two of the destinations we travel to.”
- The hotel chain Accor Group has an alternative approach to its climate commitments, with the concept of “insetting”, which focuses on supporting projects that benefit ecosystems and communities that are directly affected by the company’s operations, for example, empowering local producers to implement restorative and sustainable agroforestry practices, which in turn leads to those producers supplying local and ecological produce to Accor hotels in the region.
- Much Better Adventures provides another great example, although they emphasize focusing on “conservation and rewilding projects that have the highest potential for carbon removal”, rather than offsetting per se. To achieve this goal, they channel 5% of their revenue to reforestation and rewilding projects, and share a long list of questions to be asked when evaluating reforestation and rewilding projects (e.g. “Is the project plan focussed on native species and species diversity, not mono-planting?”, “Is the project supported and led by the local community?”, and “Do they provide transparent monitoring and reporting on progress?”).
One key lesson from these examples and from some of the resources shared above is that offsetting is one piece of the big-picture aim of decarbonizing tourism. It’s not about “keeping your conscience clean” by paying for carbon reductions elsewhere while continuing to pollute. By making informed decisions on third-party verified projects, and by investing in solutions that deliver social and economic benefits beyond carbon credits, you will be able to incorporate carbon offsetting into your climate action in a meaningful way.
And, lastly, these are consistent with the framework set forth by the recently-published Glasgow Declaration: a Commitment to a Decade of Tourism Climate Action, which outlines the pathways to “cut tourism emissions in half over the next decade and reach Net Zero emissions as soon as possible before 2050”: Measure, Decarbonise, Regenerate, Collaborate and Finance.
Additional Resources Related to Carbon Offsetting
- University of Oxford - "Oxford Principles for Net Zero Aligned Carbon Offsetting" (2020)
- World Economic Forum - “Why we can’t afford to dismiss carbon offsetting in a climate crisis” (2021)
- Sustainable Travel International - “Does planting trees actually fight climate change?”
- Anthesis Group - “How to create a Carbon Offsetting strategy”