Smart Living | Digital Parenting

Digital Parenting | 31 Jan 2022

Carbon offsetting: Greenwashing or valuable tool?

Carbon offsetting schemes are controversial, but some are increasingly gaining respect. Which ones should you and your family adopt?

Have you found yourself fantasising about tropical family holidays while standing in the frozen food aisle? We sympathise. Foreign holidays have never felt more complicated, with not only Covid but also climate change clouding our dreams of taking to the skies.

Aviation accounts for around 5% of global carbon emissions. But the UK’s largest airport group has recently announced a new tool, giving everyone who flies through Manchester, London Stansted, and East Midlands airports the option of offsetting the carbon emissions from their flights.

Your money is split equally between two environmental projects that help to withdraw carbon from the atmosphere. Buying one carbon offset credit, the group says, will remove the equivalent of one metric tonne of COfrom the atmosphere through projects such as the UK-based Woodland Creation in the Lake District, on the Lowther Estate, Cumbria, and Promoting Improved Cooking Practices, which distributes efficient charcoal cooking stoves in Nigeria and Ghana, with the goal of reducing CO2 emissions and improving community health.

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So does this herald the beginning of guilt-free family holidays? Can we forget about our carbon footprints, and leave footprints in the sand of a tropical beach instead? Is it really that simple?

What exactly is offsetting, anyway?

Let’s start with the basics. Offsetting involves calculating, and then compensating for, an action that releases carbon into the atmosphere. This might be from an individual flight, but it could also be from driving your kids to school, say, or having your heating on all day. It’s not the same as carbon removal, though, which involves taking out some of the carbon that’s already in the atmosphere.

Here’s how it now works if you’re using Manchester Airports Group. Book a flight, and CarbonClick calculates the emissions from your family’s journey, then the amount required to counteract the trip.

A return flight to Barcelona, for example, can be offset for £3.95 per passenger. They say your money is split equally between two environmental projects that help to withdraw carbon from the atmosphere.


This sounds great. Your flight causes carbon emissions, but your money is invested in projects that counter these emissions, cleaning your slate. Guilt-free flying! But how credible are these offsetting schemes? Environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg recently dismissed them as “greenwashing”. Offsetting, she wrote, “is often a dangerous climate lie” giving “polluters a free pass to keep polluting”. George Monbiot makes a similar point in this Guardian article.

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What’s the problem? Tim Williamson, customer director at Responsible Travel, explains that much of the issue is around time: “When we fly, those emissions are instant and some can remain in the atmosphere for decades. Any climate-positive impact of offsetting schemes can likewise take many years – time we don’t have.”

There’s no such thing as a carbon neutral holiday with flights

(Tim Williamson, Responsible Travel)

So when assessing the quality of a carbon offsetting scheme, it’s important to understand how quickly the emissions can be offset. Planting a tree that takes 20-30 years to mature may not be enough if your carbon emissions are having a warming effect on the planet now.

And it isn’t all about carbon dioxide; aeroplanes, he points out, also produce other polluting emissions, such as nitrogen oxide – damaging to public health as well as the planet.

“The real negative about offsetting is how it’s marketed,” says Mr Williamson. “The term itself suggests we’re able to cancel out the impacts of a flight – and, by that logic, fly as much as we like. That’s just not true.

“There’s no such thing as a carbon neutral holiday with flights.”

Cause for hope?

Not all offsetting schemes are created equal. “The carbon market is divided between compliance and voluntary programs,” explains Sarah Leugers, director of communications at The Gold Standard, the climate interventions standards body. The compliance market is used by companies and governments that are legally bound to offset their emissions. It is intensively regulated.

The voluntary carbon market, on the other hand, is the one that allows individuals like us to purchase offsets. It exists entirely separately. Carbon offsetting schemes are accredited by third-party standards bodies, but while the Task Force for Scaling the Voluntary Carbon Market is currently trying to establish an independent governance body and “core carbon principles”, at the moment each of these organisations employs different standards.

Help! Who can I trust?

So how can you make sure that your offsetting amounts to more than greenwashing?

“Individuals should only consider buying credits from internationally recognised standards,” says Ms Leugers. The American Carbon Registry and Verra are among the most reputable standards bodies, writing rules that carbon offset projects must follow in order to be certified and issue carbon credits within the voluntary market, while Gold Standard is considered the most authoritative of all.

On Gold Standard’s own website, you can enter your monthly footprint (borrowing the European average, or calculating your own through the WWF’s footprint calculator). You can then pick a project through which to offset that tonnage of carbon. Prices range from about $10 (£7.50) a tonne, to $47 (£35.40), depending on the project – although some experts believe the true per-tonne cost of carbon reduction is much higher.

If you’re imagining it’s just a lot of tree-planting, you’re mistaken. Carbon offsetting projects address a dizzying range of topics, from “energy efficiency and renewable energy to waste management and land use projects”, says Ms Leugers.

Once you’ve decided to offset your impact with a project certified by a reputable body, there are more choices to make.

“Some people are passionate about ecosystems and biodiversity and may wish to choose a land use project,” says Ms Leugers. “Community-based projects like clean cooking solutions or clean water access reduce the amount of firewood needed by communities, thereby also reducing pressure on local forests.

“Those who are most interested in accelerating the transition to renewable energy projects could choose to support wind, solar, biogas or even small hydro projects.”

Either way, she says, offsetting is “one tool in the tool box” for addressing the impact of our family lives – and future holidays – on the planet.

“There are many ways to reduce carbon and support nature as we travel,” says Mr Williamson. “A really key thing with sustainable travel is that cutting carbon is only half the story – restoring nature is the other.”

The good news? Holidaying this way is not just better for the planet, it’s more fun for your family, he explains. “You see much more, meet interesting people and have a real adventure.” Bring it on.

The bigger picture

Some climate scientists and campaigners worry that carbon offsetting is being used simply as a fig leaf to cover over our continuing reliance on fossil fuels, when it’s our behaviour that needs to change. Understanding our carbon footprint is a good place to start addressing ways we and our families can produce less carbon. Offsetting should only be used to compensate for those emissions we can’t reasonably reduce through changes in our lifestyle.

And what’s the point of “doing the right thing” and offsetting if your pension or other investments are invested in oil and gas companies continuing to exploit the earth’s fossil fuel resources? It’s a complex challenge and there are no easy answers. But we can all begin by asking the right questions.

Sarah Leuger’s favourite places to shop for offsetting projects

  1. The Gold Standard marketplace
  2. Myclimate
  3. Earthchain

Tim Williamson’s checklist for sustainable family holidays

  1. Cut down on flights. “We’ve had lots of families travelling by sea and rail to places like Portugal and Spain from the UK this year.”
  2. “When you do fly, stay longer. This also benefits local communities more.”
  3. Once there, “Consider ditching the car. You experience places in more depth when you explore by bike, foot, kayak or public transport.”
  4. Consider your accommodation: “Opting for a small – ideally renewables-powered – local-owned guesthouse is a great option.”
  5. “Eat more plant-based and delicious local produce while you’re away – and limit food waste.”
  6. “As well as reducing carbon, we need to protect and restore nature – so try opting for a trip or tour that supports a great local conservation or rewilding inititative.”

Other useful resources

The Oxford Principles for Net Zero Aligned Carbon Offsetting

Get Net Zero Right

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