Carbon offsets can do more environmental harm than good

von Dr. Peter Nagel

● By Prof. Sharon Beder, University of Wollongong ●

When was the last time you booked a flight? That extra A$1 in the final stages of booking may seem a small price to pay for offsetting the carbon emissions you generate travelling by air. But globally and across consumer companies, offsets are not only green-washing, but can do more harm than good.

Many consumer companies, from airlines to electricity companies to car dealerships and even some wedding and funeral homes, give their customers the opportunity to “neutralise” the environmental impacts of their products through carbon offsetting.

Offsets give the consumer the impression that their consumption has no negative net effect on the environment, and allows companies to gain green credentials. But in reality, the scale of change that can be achieved by voluntary individual offset schemes is entirely disproportionate to the scale of the problem of global warming.

Offsetting responsibilities

For a start, very few customers elect to pay the extra sum to offset their emissions, about 5% in the case of airline passengers.

Yet providing carbon offsetting options has public relations value for companies, allowing them to gain green legitimisation without having to significantly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. This form of elective carbon offsetting shifts the responsibility for greenhouse gas reductions onto individuals and away from institutions, corporations and governments, whose actions can make a more significant difference.

While we don’t know exactly where airline offset money goes, carbon offset money is mainly spent on investments in renewable energy, efficient energy projects, methane capture, and biosequestration projects that absorb CO2, such as tree plantations ...

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