What are Carbon Offsets and How Do They Work?
Carbon offsetting allows you to mitigate the climate impact of your flights and other travel emissions, while giving back to nature and local communities.
Climate change is affecting environments and people around the world, and the destinations you visit are no exception! From lush tropical islands to snowy mountain peaks, your favorite vacation spots could be at risk. As the planet warms, beaches are shrinking, coral reefs are bleaching, and alpine resorts are left snowless and dry.
If we want to protect these special places, along with the wildlife and communities that live there, it’s up to each and every one of us to reduce our impact. Carbon offsetting is one way to do just that.
Tourism’s Carbon Footprint
Climate change is one of the biggest threats to the places we visit. Ironically, tourism is not just a victim of global warming – it also contributes to the problem.
Climate change is primarily driven by humans releasing greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. Tourism is responsible for a substantial chunk of these emissions – accounting for roughly 8% of the world’s carbon emissions. As travel continues to become more affordable and accessible, this number will only grow.
How Do You Create CO2 When You Travel?
Every time you travel, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions are generated. The most obvious (and significant) way this happens is by flying on a plane.
Airplanes emit greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide, from burning jet fuel. The amount of emissions that a single passenger is responsible for varies from flight to flight as it is influenced by numerous factors such as the distance traveled, cabin class, and type of aircraft. As just one example, a one-way flight from San Francisco to Paris can produce around 1.25 metric tons of carbon emissions per passenger. This is more CO2 than the average person in certain countries generates in an entire year.
While flying is the leading cause of tourism-related emissions, many other travel activities produce CO2 as well. Going on a boat tour, taking a train, or using the air conditioner in your hotel all require energy and thus can produce CO2. Greenhouse gas emissions tied to food waste are an often overlooked issues in the travel industry as well. Even sampling the local cuisine and dining in restaurants can contribute to your travel footprint.
When you add up all that CO2 that you create – that’s what we call your carbon footprint.
There are many ways that you can and should minimize your carbon footprint while traveling, such as taking direct flights or staying in hotels that use renewable energy. You can check out our top tips for how to reduce your travel carbon footprint in this blog post. But no matter how sustainable your travel habits are, there will always be some emissions that are simply unavoidable.
So what can you do about those emissions that you can’t reduce? That’s where carbon offsetting comes in.
How Carbon Offsetting Works
While it may sound complex and overwhelming, carbon offsetting is actually a very simple concept.
Carbon offsetting allows you to balance out your climate impact and compensate for the emissions you produce. It accomplishes this by reducing CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions in other parts of the world. Here’s how it works:
1. Calculate your carbon footprint
In order to offset your travel emissions, you must first determine how much carbon you generated during your trip. Because so many components of your trip can generate emissions, calculating your exact carbon footprint can be incredibly complex – if not impossible. Thus, it’s best to keep things simple and focus on the activities that make up the largest portion of your emissions. A good starting point is to offset your flights. There are many tools that will help you determine your travel carbon footprint, including our online carbon footprint calculator. Along with commercial flights, our carbon calculator can be used to calculate emissions from other types of travel activities including car rentals and road trips, cruises, yachting, dive liveaboards, and private jet charters.
But it’s not just individuals that can offset their travel emissions – businesses can and should as well. A tour operator, for instance might choose to offset all of the flights, ground transportation, meals, and accommodations that make up their trip itineraries. A hotel on the other hand might offset the emissions generated by heating and lighting their guest rooms. Even organizations in other, non-tourism sectors can reduce their travel footprint by offsetting the emissions of their employees’ business trips.
2. Buy carbon offsets from a reputable provider
Once you’ve estimated how much CO2 you were responsible for, you are then ready to actually offset your emissions.
Conveniently, every bit of CO2 you produce can be directly offset in another part of the world.
So if your carbon footprint is 1 metric ton of CO2, you would offset 1 metric ton of CO2. Not so complicated after all, right?
When you buy carbon offsets, you’re simply making a financial investment in a carbon reduction project. In general, carbon offsetting is actually quite affordable. For instance, if you offset that flight from San Francisco to Paris using our calculator, it would only cost about $20.
The price of 1 metric ton of CO2 offset can vary greatly between projects. For example, one forestry project might only cost $10/MT to offset, while a specific wind project could be $20/MT. To simplify this, we use an average of $16 per MT of CO2 when you offset via our website and your dollars will go towards one of our projects that requires support.
If you are a company looking to offset carbon and want to support a specific type of project, learn more about our business carbon offset programs here.
When offsetting your footprint, be sure to go through a reputable provider. First and foremost, this means an organization that only supports third-party verified carbon offset projects. We also recommend offsetting through a mission-driven organization to ensure you’re creating the greatest positive impact with your investment.
We’ve outlined some tips on what to look for when choosing a carbon offset provider in this blog.
3. Your carbon offset purchase funds projects that reduce CO2
So you’ve offset your footprint, but then what actually happens to your money and how does it actually make a difference?
Your offset dollars will help fund carbon offset projects that reduce CO2 and other greenhouse gases. These projects do this by removing existing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or by preventing new emissions from happening.
There are three main types of carbon offset projects: forestry projects, energy projects, and blue carbon projects.
Forestry projects conserve and restore forest ecosystems which play a vital role in carbon sequestration and provide important benefits. For example, a project may engage farmers in sustainable harvesting and forest management to protect trees which store CO2.
Energy projects on the other hand, reduce fossil fuel use by generating clean, renewable energy or increasing energy efficiency. For example, one project may build a wind farm that produces electricity, while another project might provide families more efficient cookstoves that reduce the amount of CO2 produced from cutting down trees and cooking over wood fires.
Finally, there are blue carbon projects. These projects protect coastal ecosystems, such as mangroves or wetlands, that store substantial amounts of carbon. Because blue carbon projects are a newer development, there are currently less of them in existence. Click here to learn what blue carbon is and why it is important.
Carbon offset projects can also create benefits that go beyond just CO2 reduction, such as supporting local communities or protecting wildlife. At Sustainable Travel International, our mission is to protect and conserve our planet’s most vulnerable destinations by transforming tourism’s impact on nature and people. Because of this, we only support offset projects that provide added benefits for communities and/or biodiversity, and that contribute to multiple of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
How can you know if the carbon offset projects you support are actually making a difference? There are various verification mechanisms and criteria in place, such as the Verified Carbon Standard and Gold Standard, that ensure that these emissions reductions actually occur. You can learn more about the different quality assurance standards related to carbon offset projects here. When offsetting your carbon, make sure that the projects you are supporting adhere to one of these internationally-recognized standards.
You can read about the different carbon offset projects that we support here.
Offset Your Carbon Footprint
Offsetting your carbon footprint is a simple and easy way to lessen your impact on the planet and support sustainable development. If you’re ready to get started, you can: