Carbon offsets are reductions in carbon dioxide emissions in one place that allow another place to continue emitting carbon dioxide and harmful greenhouse gases. Essentially, the place that reduces its emissions is compensating for the other place, allowing it to continue to emit carbon at harmful rates. Most institutions that use carbon offsets continue to emit in Western countries that already produce a detrimental amount of carbon emissions; what is worse, though, is that the “compensators” for these carbon offsets are increasingly located in developing countries. Simple actions like planting a tree in Peru can be used to justify a business’s continued emissions in the United States. Collectively, the use of carbon offsets has forged a multi-million dollar industry. In my previous article, I mentioned that carbon offset schemes often have undesired environmental consequences in developing countries, like disrupting water supplies, taking grazing land away from farmers, or evicting thousands of villagers from their homes. Another issue to consider is that these schemes are unregulated and can often be fraudulent. Therefore, institutions that use carbon offsets might not even know if their carbon emissions are being offset or compensated for.
Regardless, a larger issue has emerged from carbon offsets. Some businesses or institutions use carbon offsets to promote their image as “green” or “eco-friendly.” In particular, airlines have offered customers carbon offset schemes for their flights. British Airways has used the scheme in the past, and United Airlines currently offers a carbon-offset program. These programs allows individuals to pay a small extra fee on their ticket that goes towards carbon offset funds. Once again, individuals are called upon to “save the world” through their consumption patterns. Instead of the airlines being pressured to take steps to reduce emissions, they allow the consumer to take steps to reduce emissions. This is incredibly problematic; not only do these policies work to keep environmentalism an individuals’ issue, they also take advantage of individuals’ concerns and work to make them feel less guilty, which actually makes them likely to fly more. Carbon offsets have provided a distraction that depoliticize the issue of plane emissions, and are offered as a scheme by airplane corporations to promote a green image and increase their sales by making emission-conscious flyers less guilty about their carbon footprint.
By targeting individuals, aviation corporations shift the blame off of them and away from the issue of how unsustainable flying is. For instance, one round-trip coach ticket from New York City to San Francisco can be equated to two metric tons of carbon. However, many people go on these flights a few times a month for business. As consumers, we need to consider alternatives to flying, support new regulations on airplane technology, and not allow big institutions to place the blame for emissions on our actions, but instead force the government and the businesses to take action that forces a meaningful and sustainable reduction in carbon emissions. Buying carbon offsets for your vacation in Paris or your business trip to Frankfurt is not fighting for climate justice, it is perpetuating climate ignorance and the power of big businesses to keep promoting it.