Carbon offsets – whats the deal?

At the UNWTO Conference on Climate Change and Tourism I attended in Davos, Switzerland last week, participants were requested to offset the carbon dioxide emissions of their travel and accommodation. Not an unreasonable request given the subject matter of the conference, and the fact that the conference itself was free to attend. But as reported in this article on Swissinfo, the whole question of offsetting, and the lack of consistency and clarity in the many alternative schemes on offer, led to debate in and out of the Congress hall.

When one delegate said on the stage the amount he had paid to offset the 6 t of carbon the conference offsetting scheme calculated for a return flight from New York, Philippe Rochat from the Air Transport Action Group responded that he didn’t know how the 6 t figure had been worked out, as it should actually be around 3 t. Checking just two offsetting companies while writing this article, Climatecare (used by British Airways) calculated emissions of just 1.43 tonnes of carbon dioxide for a return flight between New York and Zurich, at a cost of £10.74, when accessed via British Airways, and 1.76 t of CO2 when I went directly to the Climatecare website., however, charge 83 Euros (approx £56) for a calculated 4.1 t of carbon dioxide.

And that’s the problem. Different offsetting companies vary around 3-fold in the size of emissions calculated for the same flight, and by even more in the sum charged per tonne of carbon. A detailed comparison of this has been carried out by Tufts University as part of the Tufts Climate Initiative (TCI). In the companies they looked at (both non-profit and for profit), the cost per ton of CO2 ranged from $5.50 at to $27.40 at the myclimate Swiss site (interestingly, the myclimate US site only charged $18 per ton – why the difference?). There is also with some schemes a lack of clarity as to where the money goes. Renewable energy is taking over from planting or maintaining forests as the main type of offsetting projects, but on many offsetting sites there is no information as to what type of project – or in what countries – is being supported. A delegate in Davos from the IIED (International Institute for Environment and Development) had brought copies of a new briefing paper from the IIED titled ‘The trouble with travel and trees’, which claims that offsetting schemes based on tree planting or forest conservation can trigger a cascade of problems, including evicting local communities in developing countries from land allocated for tree planting, or denying them access to traditional forest resources now designated as protected carbon stores. TCI recommends offset projects that lead to the production of renewable energy, rather than biological sequestration projects.

This isn’t to say that offsetting is ‘bad’, and shouldn’t be part of action on climate change. But there does need to be clear regulation and accreditation of companies which promote offsetting, and of the schemes they carry out to balance emissions from travel. There are a number of such accreditation schemes, such as the Clean Development Mechanism and the Gold Standard, both of which accredit atmosfair, a non-profit company which the TCI list as one of their recommended organisations. Without the consumer having full confidence in the calculations of carbon emissions, and in the projects their offset fees fund, take-up of voluntary flight offsetting is unlikely to progress beyond the very low levels which most airlines currently report.

Offsetting projects must take full account of the needs and rights of local people, which hasn’t always been the case in the past, particularly with regard to forestry projects which have exacerbated land rights conflicts in a number of developing countries. And the pressure to tax and offset flights must also be balanced with the value of international travel and tourism, particularly in developing countries where it is often the main source of foreign exchange, and supports millions of the poorest people in the world. A local community in, say, Costa Rica, which has set up an ecolodge to improve their livelihoods (and which, incidentally, may give them an economic incentive to protect local forests and wildlife, rather than clearing them for agriculture and the timber value) may well ask why politicians and others in the wealthy countries that are the main contributors to climate change focus so much on the issue of long-haul travel rather than energy conservation, and industry and lifestyle changes, in their own countries.

Further reading

‘It does not harm the environment!’ An analysis of industry discourses on tourism, air travel and the environment. Gössling, S. , Peeters, P. / Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 2007, Vol. 15, No. 4, pp. 402-417, many ref.

Tourists’ perception of international air travel’s impact on the global climate and potential climate change policies. Becken, S. / Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 2007, Vol. 15, No. 4, pp. 351-368, 42 ref.

Innovation towards tourism sustainability: climate change and aviation. Peeters, P. , Gossling, S. , Becken, S. / International Journal of Innovation & Sustainable Development, 2005, Vol. 1, No. 3, pp. 184-200

Air transport. Climate change to come? Dubois, G. , Céron, J. P. / Espaces, Tourisme & Loisirs, 2005, No. 224, pp. 48-55

2 thoughts on “Carbon offsets – whats the deal?

  1. Naa Traveler December 21, 2007 / 7:00 am

    I think carbon offsets will always be a controversial issue when it comes to airline travel and such but at least *something* is happening.

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