“It’s a really dangerous distraction because it diverts our attention away from analyzing what we could do that is much more meaningful,” said Kate Ervine, an associate professor of global development studies at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
While individual activities do have environmental costs, and flying is one of the costliest, climate change is overwhelmingly driven by the actions of the fossil fuel industry. And the vast majority of carbon offsets are purchased by corporations, including fossil fuel companies themselves, on the premise that they can hit “net zero” emission targets without fundamentally changing how they operate.
The most basic problem with carbon offsets “is that you’re trading a known amount of emissions with an uncertain amount of emissions reductions,” said Barbara Haya, the director of the Berkeley Carbon Trading Project at the University of California, Berkeley. “But there’s also the whole trading approach of companies being able to buy their way out of their responsibility to reduce their own emissions.”
The sorts of programs tied to offsets are, in themselves, worthwhile and even essential to mitigate the damage already done by decades of greenhouse gas emissions; the sticky part is using them to justify more emissions. Even if we could precisely calculate how much carbon a new grove of trees would absorb, tying its planting to the release of more carbon would only keep levels steady, and we need them to go down.
Many experts say that, in principle, offsets can be valuable. Professor Usher, for instance, cited the cement industry as a good candidate for an offset program, because reducing emissions from cement production is a more expensive and technically complicated task than, say, switching electricity production to renewable sources.
But the programs would need to be designed and administered very differently than they are now, and consumers would need to pay more than the few dollars per ton of carbon dioxide that they currently do.
“If you were to reinvent the entire industrial structure, focus on a subset of activities and accept prices that are massively higher than they are today, then I think the answer to your question is, ‘Yes, we can do that,’” said Danny Cullenward, the policy director at CarbonPlan, a nonprofit climate research organization. “If the question is can we ever, at 5 bucks a ton, produce something that’s meaningful, I think the answer is no.”
For now, the best thing an individual can do remains what it has always been: Try to emit less.
For people who want to help fund broader emission reduction efforts, certifications from watchdog groups like The Gold Standard and Green-e can help identify worthwhile projects. “But think of it as a donation,” Dr. Haya said, “not as buying credits to cover your emissions.”