For example: you fly where you have to fly and then you make sure you donate some money to a non-profit that promises to plant some trees on your behalf. If this sounds like buying your way to an easy conscience, it’s because it’s exactly that.
This conversation was brought up again in August 2019, when the Duke and Duchess of Sussex flew a private jet for the second time in as many weeks, for a short holiday at Sir Elton John’s villa. Prince Harry is a prominent eco-warrior and he will tell anyone that flying is bad for the environment, so you can imagine how he was criticised when word of his flying private got out.
Sir Elton came to his rescue publicly, saying on social media that Prince Harry flew private on considerations of security (which makes sense) and, when he did, all his flights were carbon-neutral. In other words, the amount of CO2 released by his private jet was calculated, and then he matched a donation to a green cause. This made his flight guilt-free.
There are good intentions behind the carbon offsetting idea. Companies like Carbon Footprint have several schemes that seek to reduce carbon emissions in other parts of the globe, and a big chunk of money goes towards them. They include anything from reforestation projects, to fixing broken boreholes in Uganda, managing waste gas from landfills or distributing efficient cooking stoves to people in Kenya.
All of them are admirable efforts. But they are not enough – and claiming that donating money for them renders a flight carbon neutral is just bonkers.
First of all, once carbon dioxide is out there, you can’t take it back. No amount of tree planting or helping the poor will take it back, so if you fly regularly and believe carbon offsetting is a solution, you’re pretty much delusional. The solution to the climate crisis isn’t spending more on fancy window dressing, which is what carbon offsetting is, but cutting down on the cause that’s forcing us to pay for carbon offsetting in the first place.
This isn’t to say that we should all stop flying from now on, but showing a bit more responsibility when it comes to our actions could have a positive impact on the environment. And we should start by educating ourselves on the problem at hand, and this includes seeing carbon offsetting for what really is: a loophole used by companies and governments, a means to lull us into complacency by promising us a guilt-free mind.
The thing is, the flight is not guilt-free. Paying to render it carbon neutral is the equivalent of throwing out the trash in the street but stopping to pick up everyone else’s litter. One doesn’t make the other go away.
“The two aren't equivalent,” Dr. Doug Parr, chief scientist for Greenpeace, says of the issue of carbon offsetting and how it’s erroneously billed as a solution. “If you've got big puffs of CO2 which come out almost instantaneously, yes over years and years it gets slowly absorbed but over those years it's been warming the planet. They're not taking out CO2. In our world, where we need to get to net zero CO2, they don't constitute equivalence.”
A recent EU study shows that 85 carbon offsets don’t even reduce any emissions at all, so there’s that for your money badly spent. There’s also the issue of not being able to track where your money goes or what is being done with it, and the fact that the aviation industry alone is expected to grow by up to 300 percent by 2050, when it will have become the biggest cause of carbon emissions.
Draw the line and you get quite a dire scenario. Paying to have a couple of trees planted is of no real consequence in it, so stop telling yourself that it is.