Carbon Offsetting: What Is It, and Does It Even Work?

You've just bought yourself a winter sun holiday, but you're feeling bad about it. Will carbon offsetting the flight help?
Carbon emissions and offsetting
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Bear with me: I’m doing my best not to sound like someone who stands outside the local Woolworths with an “end is nigh” sign, but I truly believe people in power are trying to keep us confused over climate change. Whether it’s Boris Johnson calling Extinction Rebellion “uncooperative crusties” or Trump peddling the idea that climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese, the lack of access to clear information and sustainable alternatives fills me with daily dread that I’m just not doing enough. And now I’ve found out that some of the companies I thought were sustainable were just offsetting the carbon they’re emitting! Fuck sake.


Before we get started, a refresher: carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and at the moment, we’re producing way too much of it through the burning of oil, coal and natural gas. This is causing it to hang around in our atmosphere and heat up our planet, which melts large amounts of ice and makes sea levels rise amongst other really, really bad stuff. In the past few decades, the pressure has been mounting on governments and companies to reduce the amount of carbon they emit into the atmosphere, but as with everything that might cost money, they’ve found a way around it.

Carbon offsetting is a process in which, instead of actually reducing the amount of carbon that they dump into the atmosphere, companies can just pay a third party to plant trees, support sustainability projects or invest in renewables in an attempt to repent for their environmental sins. This cost can be covered by carbon-conscious companies themselves in exchange for a certified ‘carbon neutral’ status, or the onus can be shifted to the consumer.

We’ve all seen the “tick here to add £5 and offset your carbon” boxes during the checkout at online food delivery services, retailers and flight websites. Is it a gimmick to assuage our climate guilt or something worse? I spoke to some people who know more than I do to find out the facts.

Max Wakefield is Director at the climate charity, Possible. His exasperation with carbon offsetting being described to as a solution to climate change was audible. “Carbon offsetting is, at best, a compensatory measure,” he tells me over the phone. “Compensation is only ever offered or granted in recognition of harm and, sure, compensation is better than no compensation in some cases, but really, you’d just rather that the harm hadn’t been done in the first place.”


It's also very difficult to track the efficacy of the projects your money is funnelled into. According to an EU study, 85 percent of all carbon offsets weren’t reducing any emissions at all. “From a consumer point of view, you shouldn’t really ever have high confidence that what you’re spending your money on is actually happening,” Wakefield told me.

If we take the example of aviation – an industry predicted to grow by 300 percent by 2050 to become the single biggest cause of carbon emissions – you would pump 1.76 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere to get a return flight from London Heathrow to New York. To put that into perspective, the common birch tree sucks up 61 tonnes of carbon per hectare (10,000 square metres) over 90 years. So, you’d need to plant 289 square metres of birch trees just to offset that carbon. Trees also re-emit any carbon stored back into the environment if they rot or are incinerated, so you’d have to look after them for that period to avoid just spunking that carbon back into the atmosphere. Just to see Trump Tower? Nah.

“Even if a magical carbon-sucking machine did exist,” Wakefield points out, “the urgency of the situation we’re in means that we need to be both reducing the demand for high-carbon behaviours and doing the activities that we paid for by offsetting at the same time. On a really simplified measure, the two causes of climate change are deforestation and flying. We need to both cut down on flying and we need to be reforesting at the same time. What you can’t do is say, ‘Ah well, I’m reforesting, therefore it’s okay for me to be flying’.”


Basically, and I can only apologise for this analogy, but if you allow your dog to go around shitting on the pavement while you pick up litter, I’m afraid your dog has still done a shit on the pavement, my friend! Please clean it up. And if you’ve still got time to pick up some litter afterwards then, be my guest!

Despite the lack of self-awareness from a lot of carbon offsetting companies – I shit you not, one of them cancelled on an interview with me because they had to catch a flight – I felt it was necessary to get the other side of the argument. Elliott Coad, co-founder of carbon offsetting prescription service Offset Earth, sees offsetting as more of a voluntary carbon tax that we place on ourselves.

“We run a prescription service for £4.50 a month, and for that, we plant twelve trees to make your entire life carbon positive. We offset more than your carbon footprint,” he explains. “That’s not to say that you can then have a carte-blanche attitude to carbon pollution, though. There may be some of our subscribers who think ‘oh great, I don’t have to feel guilty anymore’ but for the most part, we get a lot of really good feedback from people who now feel more in control [of their carbon emissions], who can look back on their year and say ‘I’ve planted 150 trees’, as well as getting involved with other political movements like Extinction Rebellion.”

Justin Francis, the CEO and founder of Responsible Travel, a sustainable travel agency, takes a more hardline approach. “I think carbon offsets are actually holding back progress,” he tells me. “They are a dangerous distraction from the fact that the only way we can get to where we need to, is to pollute less. It gives people a little warm, fuzzy feeling which enables them to just go on polluting with a good conscience.”

And he’s right. As much as certified and audited companies like Offset Earth have their heart in the right place, they are basically giving people a free pass to pollute because they’re cleaning up something elsewhere. We need to focus our efforts on reducing emissions, not just blindly planting trees in an attempt to clean the damage we’ve already done.

But that also doesn’t mean you have to beat yourself too much over your Easyjet to Berlin. The general public spending their hard-earned money isn’t going to fix climate change completely. Let’s be honest, the system is stacked against us. Here in the UK, the government pays oil companies more subsidies than any other country in the EU – £10.5 billion every year – just to keep the price of oil affordable, instead of investing that money into renewables. In fact, three of the top Conservative Party donors are climate change deniers.

All of the onus shouldn’t be on us – it should always be on the people making the profit. And anyway, sustainability is about doing less, not spending more – less driving, less food waste and less unnecessary consumption. The fight against climate change will happen on a bigger, more political level and not at the financial cost of the consumer. My advice? Don’t fly abroad for your next holiday – save your money and protest instead.