Should You Buy Carbon Offsets When You Fly?

Flying is terrible for the environment – there's just no two ways about it. Statistically speaking, it's one of the worst things a person can do when it comes to carbon emissions (along with owning a vehicle, having kids, and eating meat). Now, I don't eat meat, I don't own a car, and I don't have kids, which leaves flying as the main source of my environmental footprint. As someone who consciously works to live an ethical and responsible lifestyle, I'm not happy with the fact that one of my passions causes great harm to the planet. I love to travel because it has a lot to teach us; it helps us bridge cultures and build understanding. It's awesome. But it's also awesome to not kill the planet.

So, what's a boy to do?

Enter carbon offsets.

In a nutshell, a carbon offset is when you give money to a group or organization to promote and invest in climate solutions. This is done to make up for the environmental damage cause by one's travel (specifically flying). In the past, I've donated to groups that invest in projects around the world dedicated to slowing climate change to help make up for the damage my travels have caused. It's not a perfect solution, but as far as I'm concerned, it's a start. To dig further into the issue and illuminate the topic, I reached out to Ron from Less.ca. Less is a Canadian carbon offset company that has recently partnered with Air Canada, and Ron was kind enough to sit down and answer some of my questions.

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Chris: Thanks for sitting down to chat, Ron! Now, first thing first: why should travelers consider purchasing carbon offsets?

Ron: Offsetting is an imperfect answer to a complicated—and urgent—problem: global climate change. Our approach is to give travelers the choice to mitigate the impact of their air travel by providing the highest quality offsets available in Canada.

In general, we believe that offsetting should be the last resort after first reducing the amount of emissions-producing travel and then switching to environmentally lower-impact alternatives where possible. But for many travelers, there may be no alternative to air travel to get your destination.

Offsets from a trusted provider can provide a meaningful and credible way to lessen the environmental impact of your flight.

There are a lot of companies out there offering offsets. How can consumers find out which companies are reputable/trustworthy?

When you are trying to decide on an offset provider there are two important questions to ask:

1)     Are the offsets certified under international standards?

2)     Is the company selling the offsets independently audited?

Less' international-based offsets are derived from Gold Standard-certified projects, as endorsed by leading environmental groups, including WWF International. The projects produce Certified Emission Reductions (CERs) following the United Nations' Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) protocols and also meet the Gold Standard Foundation's sustainable development criteria.

Less' Canadian-based offsets are sourced from projects that have achieved certification under the VER+ Standard, an internationally recognized standard that also follows the UN's CDM methodologies. VER+ certification applies to projects in developed countries.

In addition, Less has committed to publishing an annual independent audit carried out by an internationally recognized auditing firm.

Several years ago the Pembina Institute in partnership with the David Suzuki Foundation prepared a guide to help individuals interested in purchasing carbon offsets.  From a group of 20 Canadian and International providers, Less was ranked as the highest quality provider.

So, when someone buys an offset, where does their money go? And what sort of projects are you involved with?  

When you purchase an offset, your money goes towards projects that reduce or sequester carbon that would otherwise not have occurred had it not been for the payment by the carbon offset purchaser – sometimes referred to as “additional” or “additionality”.  Another way to phrase this is that these projects are not “business as usual”.

Currently, Less sources from projects that are either a Gold Standard or VER+ Standard certified projects.

An example of one of the Gold Standard projects we source offsets from is a program to provide chlorine dispensers to rural communities in Eastern Uganda. Chlorine dispensers replace the need to boil water with wood-burned fire, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions, preventing deforestation and improving indoor air quality. To date, the project has mitigated more than 170,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions from the environment. The dispenser program also improves quality of life by reducing water-borne diseases; educating villagers about the dangers of contaminated water; and saving resources that would have been spent gathering wood or purchasing fuel to boil water.

An example of a VER+ Standard certified project in Canada is the Fredericton Region Solid Waste Commission's (FRSWC) Landfill Gas Management System (LGMS) in Fredericton, New Brunswick, which was designed to significantly reduce greenhouse gases created by landfill waste. The FRSWC collects between 75,000 and 80,000 tonnes of garbage annually. By voluntarily capturing and flaring the landfill gas emitted by the waste, the LGMS is able to eliminate approximately 45,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent from the atmosphere each year—emissions that would have otherwise been released into the atmosphere.

As a travel blogger, I often bring up the carbon offset question to other bloggers but they don't seem to be convinced or interested. How do you go about explaining offsets in a way that is convincing?

To understand why carbon offsets are important you need to already be convinced of two large points:

1)     Climate change is real and is accelerated as a result of greenhouse gas emissions.

2)     Your air travel creates greenhouse gas emissions and you are responsible for those emissions.

Carbon offsets are a way of taking responsibility for the emissions associated with your air travel. The most important quality of a carbon offset is what is called “additionality.” Additionality means that if the carbon offset were not sold, the associated project would not exist and neither would those emissions reductions. Because air travel distributes those emissions around the globe, the specific location of the project doesn’t matter as much as the verification that the emissions reductions that the project claims are actually happening. Purchasing Gold Standard-certified offsets is the most effective way to take responsibility for the emissions associated with your air travel.

It’s really about trusting that the incremental cost is going to projects that mitigate or “offset” the amount of carbon that is produced during your travel. 

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You are responsible for your emissions. I think that is a powerful way to look at the issue, and Im grateful for Ron taking the time to chat. I've still got a TON to learn about this issue, but I hope this little interview helps you look at this with a fresh perspective. We are all responsible for this planet, and our own actions. I think it's safe to say we can be doing better.

What do you think? Are you convinced? have you used carbon offsets? Is climate change a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese? Let me know in the comments!

 

P.S. I was in no way compensated by Less for this interview. I just wanted to talk to an expert and share what I discovered. I've used Less in the past, and will definitely continue to do so!