Do Carbon Offsets Result in Carbon Neutrality?


Cody Busch-Weiss, Writer

Carbon offsets have become increasingly popular lately, with celebrities such as Elton John and Emma Watson paying to carbon offset airplane flights. But what exactly are carbon offsets and do they neutralize carbon emissions?

The general idea behind carbon offsets is that after you do something that results in carbon emissions, such as flying on an airplane, you pay a fee to whoever put the carbon in the atmosphere in the first place, and they will “offset” your share of the emissions by various means, such as planting trees or fostering other carbon-absorbing processes. These offsets are heavily promoted by airlines, which usually tend to take a cut of the offset fee. Paying a carbon offset fee through the airlines is essentially just giving them money with a promise that they will use it responsibly. But assuming the money goes to where it’s supposed to, does carbon offsetting work?

Most environmentalists say carbon offsets most likely do not counteract the carbon emissions in any significant way. A 2017 report for the European Commission showed that 85% of carbon offsetting projects had a low chance of having a significant impact and that only 2% of projects had a high likelihood. The Friends of Earth head of Policy, Science, and Research, Mike Childs, says that “to continue behavior while paying for something that’s happening anyway doesn’t undo the harm you’re doing.” The UN Environmental Programme’s own website states that “offsets…risk giving the dangerous illusion of a ‘fix’ that will allow our billowing emissions to just continue to grow.” The trees that are planted today will not reach their potential of offsetting until 2030, by which time emissions need to be cut by at least 50%. Carbon offsetting isn’t as effective as it is advertised, but it is still better than doing nothing. However, carbon offsets are not the solution to the problems of climate change.

If carbon offsets aren’t the solution, what is? The best option is to just avoid emitting carbon in the first place and supporting carbon-absorbing initiatives. Avoid flying when possible, use a low-emissions vehicle or bike, avoid using unnecessary electricity and gas, and support green movements. Each person might only have a little impact, but many people changing their behavior can have a massive effect.