Let’s not sugar-coat it: Air travel has a massive carbon footprint and, as travellers, we are all part of the problem. And with COVID-19 bringing flights to a screeching halt, we have a unique opportunity to reassess our old habits and reduce our impact while travelling.

For some, that may mean taking the train rather than a car, walking instead of hailing a tuk-tuk, or traveling by boat rather boarding a plane. Of course, it may be unrealistic to cut out flying or driving altogether. In that case, carbon offsets are worth considering.

Credit: Marcin-jozwiak, Unsplash
Credit: Marcin-jozwiak, Unsplash

What are carbon offsets?

When you purchase carbon offsets, you don’t just magically erase your carbon footprint. It’s an indirect process: The money you spend on carbon offsets is then invested in environmental programmes designed to reduce emissions.

Such initiatives might include renewable energy projects (like wind farms), methane capture from landfills, reforestation, or energy-efficiency projects (like increasing insulation in buildings or transitioning to electric vehicles).

And in some cases, the projects directly impact people in need. As one example, some projects distribute clean-burning cookstoves to underprivileged communities.

Credit: Dan-meyers, Unsplash
Credit: Dan-meyers, Unsplash

How do I choose the right service?

Some airlines will give you the option to purchase offsets at the same time you book your ticket. Other airlines take it one step further, inviting guests to subscribe to its ‘sustainability programme’ (for example, Cathay Pacific offers a FlyGreener service).

If you purchase carbon offsets through an airline, check to see how the investment will be used (in the US, offsets have no federal oversight) and if the selected programmes have been accredited by a reputable third-party organisation. You might not find this information readily available, which can be frustrating.

For that reason, many travellers prefer to shop independently for carbon offset services. When choosing a service, look for respected certifications from third-party agencies like The Gold Standard, Climate Action Reserve, Verra (formerly Verified Carbon Standard) or Green-e.  

Leading carbon offset services, such as Cool Effect, Terrapass and Carbonfund.org, carry at least one of these certifications, if not multiple.

The best carbon offset services also clearly communicate how your dollars will be spent. For instance, Carbonfund promises to donate 95 per cent of every dollar to tree-planting, renewable energy, water restoration initiatives, and the development of new carbon offset projects.

Moreover, when purchasing offsets, you should also look for “additionality” – collateral benefits like improving air quality or strengthening biodiversity.  

How do I purchase carbon offsets?

Choosing which service you’ll use is the hard part. Once you decide it’s just a quick two-step process: calculate your carbon footprint per flight using the website’s carbon offset calculator, then purchase offsets accordingly.

If you are a frequent traveler, you can often purchase a monthly subscription to automatically offset your expected travel.

To give you an idea of pricing: On Cool Effect, offsets for an eight-hour flight cost about US$10, while it costs about US$3.25 to offset a six-hour flight – that’s cheaper than a coffee or bottle of water at the airport.

Credit: William-bossen, Unsplash
Credit: William-bossen, Unsplash

Do offsets work?

To truly see change, carbon emissions must be reduced on a global scale – with industries and governments all chipping in. But that doesn’t mean your carbon efforts won’t make a difference.

Carbon offsets purchased through a trusted and verified vendor can reduce the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere and created long-lasting, impactful projects along the way.

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