The questions in this article draw from various conversations and forums I belong to online since I created Teja on the Horizon. They revolve around what it means to offset your carbon footprint, and covered a range of concerns, impressions, and misconceptions. I found them impossible to answer in a comment box, since a whole lot of context is required. Context that is definitely missing for millennials and Gen Z, and probably for Gen X and older as well, if you weren’t in a related industry.

So around 2019, I decided to write an article that presents the context as I knew it, for the 30 years or so up to today’s climate action, and what actually is carbon offsetting relative to climate action.

Read this if you:

  1. have been hearing about carbon offsetting, and wondering if you should offset your carbon footprint; and
  2. are already environmentally-conscious, and wondering if there is a real benefit if you offset your carbon footprint.

For a crash course on the basic concepts in carbon offsetting, go to my ‘cheat sheet’:


Contents

Article notes

I write this article as a non-ideological environmental science practitioner with >15 years in the energy industry, not as a sustainable travel blogger. Note: By ‘non-ideological’ I don’t just mean not favouring any particular political philosophies. I also mean these are not energy industry views; they are mine.

Where appropriate, I also chose to write from the perspective of a STEM professional in the non-Western developing world. I think that it is a viewpoint that is under-represented on the internet. I also believe that climate action discourse can benefit from its inclusion as a point of view with agency, not a demographic to ‘be saved’. For instance, I find Western discourse on climate action is typically more emotional and less tolerant of an ‘all of the above’ approach, compared to the developing world. We may soon enter a climate phase where we can no longer afford this luxury.

If you have follow-up questions, please comment below. Perhaps I can find ways to improve the article. If you have carbon offsetting questions that aren’t in the article, please also comment. I may consider adding them to the list.

Carbon offsetting is economically agnostic

This article attempts to answer common questions related to carbon offsetting, in a way that applies across the different economic paradigms (e.g. capitalist, socialist, or syariah). I will assume that stable political entities will not waste time changing their political-economic systems, and will simply adapt whatever system they already use to achieve Paris Agreement ambitions.

The default economic paradigm I adopt for this article is capitalist, since it is the default for English-speaking countries.


Carbon offsetting: When and how did it become a thing?

To answer the FAQs, I have to go into a bit of history.

In the 1990s, planetary scientists began comparing notes and noticed they were all finding signals in the climate data that something was off balance. There was a lot more heat on the planet than there should be. The trend seemed to begin from the Industrial Revolution, when mankind first began to use coal (and later, petroleum) in large quantities to expand manufacturing and mass transportation.

The discovery of fossil fuels meant that mankind was no longer limited by the growth rate of trees for wood, or the abundance of whale blubber. So we began burning more fuel than we ever burned before.

But carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations in the atmosphere sharply increased across the same period. And carbon dioxide is the primary end product of burning fuel. It was not a coincidence.

This became a problem because carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. More of it in the atmosphere means our planet is better at trapping heat energy it receives from the sun. So the planet began steadily getting hotter; i.e. it began warming.

[The Industrial Revolution era also coincided with other things that contribute to global warming, via removal of carbon sinks, and rapid generation of greenhouse gases other than CO2. For instance, commercial whaling, and industrialised agriculture and fishing/trawling. I’ll get around to adding content on these topics.]

The speed of climate change is the problem

That global warming is happening is one thing. The bigger issue is that it is warming really fast. The last time the earth got as warm as it’s going to be if we don’t do anything, many of the ecosystems we rely on didn’t exist. For perspective, that world had no ice in the polar ice caps.

And even that shift took a million years. Ours is taking place within hundreds. This much warming happening this fast means that the climate systems we depend on will change – a lot. It wouldn’t be gradual, so that we slowly adapt to it. Climate systems will change within just one or two generations.

It would mean natural disasters we’re not used to. It would mean changes in where farmlands should be. Coastal cities would be flooded, and rivers relying on glacier melt would dry up. Ecosystems would collapse, potentially triggering extinction events.

Essentially – not good. And we are seeing this begin to play out already.

Global effort to reduce carbon emissions

I know this part fairly well, because I lived it in the 90s. As a teenager, I was already following environmental issues. So I knew early that global warming would become an important crisis within my lifetime. This knowledge was what made me choose to study environmental science in the first place.

You see, the basic science was basically over by then. Even in Malaysia, this was common knowledge if you paid attention. All climate science has done since, was either to try and rule out that perhaps the dire predictions were a mistake, or to try and make more precise predictions about what would happen and where.

The first effort failed, notwithstanding the fringes still in denial. The second are helping us prepare for inevitable adaptation and mitigation.

At what point did the global efforts stall?

But the 90s were kind of hopeful. That was when the world first came together to talk about it. The Cold War had finally ended. The United Nations formed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Carbon emission targets were agreed for the first time, albeit only for a subset of countries who were ready.

So I thought I would be old before I would see large-scale climate change happen. Surely, it couldn’t happen any faster. I thought my role would be to pass on the torch, not to hold it up myself.

But a decade passed, and then another. The booming new millennium made people comfortable. The climate risk seemed many decades away. And no country was willing to take the lead to do more, and put at risk their own economy. No politician would risk their career.

In this atmosphere, climate negotiations became dominated by protectionist attitudes. Developed countries dragged their feet, unwilling to do more until the developing countries did more. The developing countries refused to sacrifice their development goals and poverty eradication, demanding compensation for doing more.

Socially, if you were a ‘greenie’, you were ridiculed by an increasingly consumerist society. Companies that had tentatively begun to invest in renewables in the optimistic high of the 90s were punished by the market with losses. They withdrew, and were held up by others as proof that society does not really want sustainable options.

What was in the way of climate action?

The idea that one evil guy was in the way, is tempting. But real life is not like a Hollywood movie. Yes, there’s the unhelpful oil & gas lobbying in Washington. And there’s general political corruption in, well, a lot of places. But in all honesty, what was (and is) really in the way, was the sum of our complex modern civilisation.

Our massive modern structures are efficient because it’s interlocked. It’s also hard to change, because it’s interlocked. Destroying them, even as they are, is worse. Vulnerable groups are sheltered under all of these structures. This is why, in case you were wondering what the UN were doing in those couple of decades, there are 17 interlocking Sustainable Development Goals. And you can’t solve one – not even Climate Action – without also considering the other 16. It is the real origin to the concept of “intersectionality”.

Even repressive governments provide stability in systems. Its removal leads to widespread suffering, as we can see in Syria following the civil war. In some developing countries, the same multinational corporations that are problematic in some countries, bring advances in workplace safety, gender equality, and the growth of a professional class in others. (The latter benefit is especially under-appreciated by those claiming to speak on our behalf. It allows, for example, someone like me to write this and address you from an equal footing.) And while investment banking is these days better known for its entitled mentality, pension funds are sheltered under the same structures.

Our global economy is deeply inter-connected

Democracies, corporations, surveillance states, banks, media, social platforms. These massive structures are not 100% bad, nor 100% good.

This complexity means that simplistic actions against someone will be opposed by somewhere that’s benefiting from it. Conversely, governments can’t move if the public aren’t ready. Corporations can’t move if consumers aren’t ready. One company in an industry can’t move if it means losing business to its competitors.

Somebody has to start, but then thereafter, everyone has to move more or less together. The exact ending has to be an evolution – not design.

A cross-structural, multinational problem requires unprecedented collaboration. But the 20th century, and everyone in it, only knew the language of competition. And while the symptoms are visible in the deterioration of natural systems, the problem actually comes from the economic systems. One discipline – planetary science – discovered the existential problem. But a wholly different discipline – economists – had to lead the fix.

Multinational effort to reduce carbon emissions

Multinational progress really began when even bankers and economists started learning climate science. In 2006, an economist called Lord Stern conducted an economic study which revealed that the cost of disruption to economic activity due to climate change was far higher than the cost of climate action. It was the first such study, and it was convincing.

That was when the economic opinion began to turn. The study meant that, far from risking their economy, leadership on climate action is actually fiscally responsible. It took the best part of a decade, but within that decade the private sector gradually began to realise that climate change was not just an environmental risk, but also an investment risk.

By the time COP21 happened in Paris in 2015, even CEOs of several oil & gas multinationals issued statements strongly hinting that governments should agree a global accord of some kind to regulate the industry’s emissions.

The historic Paris Agreement was then achieved.

Why can’t emissions reduction efforts keep up?

Some dismiss the Paris Agreement for being vague and voluntary. However, in an international negotiation, the power of even a soft consensus is greater than precise targets that don’t include everyone. The peer pressure moves the right way around, and it is proving to be astonishingly effective – more effective than law. Perhaps it’s because I’m a scientist, but this never occurred to me! It’s arguably still too slow, but not if you remember the speed it was at previously!

Major structural developments for climate action happened after the Paris Agreement. Tentative noises of fossil fuel divestments by investment funds became more sure, leading oil majors to dare re-visiting a renewables makeover. More stable democracies shut down coal plants and invested heavily in the energy transition. Authoritarian China, previously among the worst carbon emitters, is now a renewable energy powerhouse.

That it took 20 years to get this far is one thing. The bigger problem is that within those same 20 years, there were more prosperous countries in the world (good), and lifestyle emissions for everyone increased even more (bad). Emissions reductions from efficiency advances such as LEDs and efficient cooling systems could not keep up with more disposability, more meat consumption, and the rise of flight consumerism.

I was wrong. Climate change could happen faster than the 90s. In just a decade or so, the emissions rate became much, much faster.

Is it because of population growth?

Some environmentalists would point to this and say, population growth is the real problem. Indeed, even with the trend of declining fertility levels worldwide, population growth will likely continue in this century. On the other hand, arguably, this period until human populations plateau is mainly a problem because the aspired quality of life is so energy intensive and wasteful.

There are really only two basic choices for environmentalists at this point. Either we make the equitable lifestyle sustainable, so that people leaving poverty enter into a sustainable life. Or we choose to accept an unequal humanity, where some may live in leisure at the expense of the rest.

I think the choice you make says something about what kind of world you want to stabilise the climate for.

Why can’t we stop using petroleum right away?

In theory, we could do it.

But no one chooses to, because it would mean suffering to people immediately. It would mean sacrificing all of the non-climate UN Sustainable Development Goals. These include goals such as no poverty (#1), zero hunger (#2), and good health (#3).

We can see how, in the worldwide Covid19 lockdowns, every country listed fuel supply as an essential service. Associated employees were required to show up to work as essential workers. No country – not even Costa Rica – has fully transitioned such that it did not have to list fuel supply as essential.

Graph showing world energy mix from 1990 to 2017 [IEA]
World energy mix trends from 1990 to 2017 [Source: International Energy Agency]. Even if funded renewable power projects come online and their trends spike exponentially, it would not compensate for an immediate removal of coal, let alone all the fossil fuels.

But wouldn’t a fully renewable energy system enable the UN SDGs? Isn’t climate change a threat to achieving the SDGs?

Yes, which is why affordable clean energy and climate action are SDGs (#7 & #13).

However, all human activity, including that which will power climate action, requires energy. As these activities are ongoing, they require energy that is available today.

Simply ceasing all fossil fuel use right away will leave a severe shortfall in energy supply. It will cause failures in agriculture, food distribution, powering of hospitals, refrigeration of medicines, not to mention production of materials required for the renewables transition itself.

Mining is still largely dependent on fossil fuels, and necessary for the production of batteries. And we still need plastics to make wind turbines and solar panels. While non-hydrocarbon alternatives to plastics are being developed, they’re not online at the scale required, today.

Even though there has been unprecedented investment in renewables capacity in recent years, they won’t come online tomorrow. Energy demand in this lag time still needs to be met. But since we are already out of the global carbon budget, we need to do something about these transition emissions. And all while trying to drop the energy demand for tomorrow.

This is why there is so much emphasis on carbon offsetting and a sustainable financing infrastructure in the past 2-3 years. It simply must be done.

Why can’t we at least stop all investment in new fossil fuel capacity?

To achieve the Paris Agreement goals, most of the fossil fuel reserves must be left in the ground. Wherever it is feasible to meet new energy demand by other means, those have to be preferred over fossil fuels. The infrastructure of carbon offsetting (and in part, the fast-developing frameworks of sustainable financing) is meant to favour this outcome in investment decisions*, in the absence of stronger government action such as a ban.

However, for the same constraint as described in earlier sections, some fossil fuel investment has to continue. That said, it is entirely laudable for investment funds in developed countries to question whether their capital ought to go there. In fact, countries that are in a position to stop fossil fuel investment without incurring public anger, have done so (e.g., Ireland).

And even this, is assuming relatively stable conditions in the world. If we suddenly need to keep existing gas fields because of say, war preparations, or as backup in case of international trade sanctions, prematurely stopping such investments could be an existential risk to a country.

Are there reasons to be cynical?

Are there selfish corporations? Yes. They tend to be in regulatory frameworks where selfishness is a low business risk. (I.e.selfishness is not punished, or in some countries, even rewarded).

Overwhelmingly capitalist countries may find it difficult to imagine countries where capitalism is not the sole means to do everything. But there are regulatory frameworks where you end up with not as many selfish companies, or at least lines they won’t cross. Either because selfish behaviour is illegal, or the country’s culture is such that you simply won’t be able to hire enough people willing to be unrestrainedly selfish. In such countries, businesses mobilise to render assistance across their nations in emergencies and disasters, without being asked. Acting outside of capitalism.

Corporations are not ‘evil’ simply because they are corporations. The ‘corporation’ is essentially a machine to facilitate competition. They comprise of people drawn from the country they’re based in. The nature of what companies are like, is just a reflection of the country they grew from.

It is entirely possible to view capitalism (as well as other economic systems) as a framework you can design to deliver outcomes you want, rather than a mysterious ‘invisible hand’ that is larger than ourselves.

The ecosystem is larger than ourselves. The economy isn’t. It’s time to put it back the right way around.

Graph showing electricity generation carbon intensity by selected regions [IEA]
Carbon intensity trends in power generation. Developing economies have a harder challenge to decarbonise electricity without assistance, as poverty alleviation tends to increase energy demand. [Source: IEA; projection is based on the ‘Sustainable Development Scenario’ assumption]

Climate action and environmental justice

There’s a general difference in the way the Western public talk about fossil fuel elimination, vs developing countries. And that’s to do with the difference in what that means for the daily lives of people.

It’s true that less developed countries are generally the most exposed to the consequences of climate change. However, for mostly the same reasons, we also have the most to lose from a lack of access to energy.

For some of us, loss of power means that women go back to walking miles every day for water. For some island communities, access to healthcare stops. In yet others, delayed access to power means desperate poverty for another decade, or another generation of children foregoing education. And for still others, losing a national oil company could mean losing sovereignty to foreign powers all over again.

These are not ‘quality of life’ decisions. These are life and death decisions.

Be less ideological – do more and faster

In the developing world, industry may not necessarily be the worst evil. It is still normal to be loyal to your people’s greater good first, even if you work for a corporation. And sometimes, corporations form the links that prepare a country for international climate collaboration.

An ideological all-or-nothing position is a luxury only the global 1% of nations can afford to indulge in. The rest of us have no leeway to insist that options only come a certain way. We saw this mirrored in 2021’s Covid19 response, when some countries can pick and choose what brand vaccine they’d like, and still waste it. Whereas other countries just take what vaccines we can get.

Many of us have no choice but to admit all possibilities. It’s difficult enough to shepherd a country through an energy transition. It’s too much to also quibble over which solution is the perfect one. A second best solution that is done, is better than a best one that is theoretical.

Without help, developing countries can only do the energy transition slowly, if at all. Yet capital owners in developed countries are under pressure to invest first in climate mitigation to protect their own people. This dilemma is what has stalled climate negotiations for years.

Graph showing share of CO2 emissions by type of sector 1990 to 2017 [IEA]
It looks like you should focus on the biggest chunk to accelerate the energy transition. But actually, you can shift that one more easily if the bottom ones transition at the same time. [Source: International Energy Agency]

The biggest impact is through helping others transition

A significant part of how the Paris Agreement attained worldwide consensus, was an understanding that emissions reduction targets by developing countries are conditional on assistance from developed countries. Although this, too, was fairly vague, it was the first global consensus that anything else is unfair.

I’ve no doubt that future generations will find it unbelievable that ‘co-operation’ was the controversial answer that took 20 years to resolve.

Anyway, the most interesting example I’ve seen to accelerate obsolescence of fossil fuel demand without inflicting negative outcomes in the developing world, is Shell’s net zero ambition, which has since been copied by its competitors.

I say so, not because it was from an oil & gas company, nor even because this is the one I worked for at the time. But because the strategy explicitly involves co-operation. Specifically, it involved helping industry customers decarbonise, inventing a positive feedback loop of carbon emissions reduction across multiple industries.

Go back prior to this and see if any private entity ever dared to have voluntary co-operation with other private entities, as its decarbonisation strategy. Again, I don’t know how to explain to future generations that it took this long to be socially acceptable for a company to announce it will help its customers’ businesses decarbonise.

“Companies that supply energy – including the power sector – should work with the sectors that use energy. We should work together, supply and demand, with a new approach to progressively decarbonise the energy use sectors.”

Ben van Beurden, Shell CEO

Ok, now for the actual FAQs.

1. Where does carbon offsetting fit in climate action?

The release of carbon emissions is local, but the consequence is global. Carbon capture (whether natural or artificial) also happens locally – but maybe somewhere else than the emissions.

Carbon offsetting is a mechanism through which these two processes – emission and capture – are valued and matched. A project emitting a lot of carbon (high carbon intensity) would then be less profitable vs a low carbon one. And projects that create emissions avoidance or capture can claim carbon credits to obtain funding.

To be clear, carbon offsetting does not solve all of the obstacles of complex civilisation that is in the way of climate action. For example, it cannot solve socio-political obstacles in some countries, that propagate climate change denial. We have to pursue multiple structural actions at once, to give us the best possible chance against the consequences of climate change.

But it is fundamental to fixing one: the finance/economic system. Simply putting a price on carbon emissions would allow the very same economic engine that accelerated a carbon intensive economy, to accelerate a low carbon economy instead.

Where does carbon offsetting not fit in?

For this reason, contributing to other environmental issues (e.g. wildlife rescue), even if they are related to climate change (e.g. forest fire recovery), is not the same as carbon offsetting.

They are still very important, don’t get me wrong. But they solve different problems than the one carbon offsetting would. We also have a biodiversity crisis, a marine plastics crisis, and others. Their solutions don’t solve climate change, and climate change solutions don’t directly solve them.

I’m going to let you have some moments now, for the realisation to sink in. That we have a lot of problems to fix in order to get the planet back in balance, not just the one.

Which is better: a carbon pricing mechanism, or a carbon tax?

A carbon tax levies funds which a government then re-distributes, usually for green initiatives. It is a politically preferred mechanism in some countries, mainly because it uses existing finance infrastructure. At the same time, it also raises funds to pay for initiatives that help them meet their carbon emissions reduction targets, e.g. building insulation upgrades.

Additionally, for certain countries, the carbon tax is also politically attractive, to show the public that the government ‘punishes’ carbon intensive industries which are unpopular (e.g. coal, mining).

A carbon price sets a standard price on emitting greenhouse gases, which makes it extendable across industries and countries. Businesses tend to prefer a carbon pricing mechanism over a carbon tax, mainly because it fits in more easily with existing systems for project financing.

A common pricing mechanism would also equally penalise carbon intensity irrespective of industry (including the ones you don’t think about, e.g. agriculture, smelting, concrete making), while equally rewarding climate-positive innovation.

2. Why should I offset my carbon footprint?

Thus far, I’ve covered the context for why carbon offsetting exists. In order to roll back carbon emissions, energy systems need to be carbon neutral as soon as possible.

But what is the responsibility of the public in this matter? Should the energy provider/industry offset the associated carbon footprint of the product for you? Indeed, as carbon offsetting mechanisms mature, this might become the case. But to get there from status quo, is not a simple yes/no answer.

And the reason for that, is that global warming is not really a carbon accounting problem. It’s an accountability problem. In other words, it’s a human problem.

Because global warming is a human problem, the psychology of carbon offsetting matters.

Enough for need, not enough for greed.

Human beings are not very good at appreciating problems that are far away. We don’t think about what it takes to mine the minerals used in electronics, when we’re lining up for a new smartphone. We don’t think about marine life entangled in discarded plastic fishing nets, when we’re shopping for fish.

Fisherman's jetty, Pulau Perhentian Besar | Perhentian Islands

When we have a financial budget, we become aware of exceeding it. Otherwise, it’s easy to overspend. The planet has its budget too, but if we don’t make a point of seeing it, we overspend it.

Even if all businesses agree to go net zero today, how easy that is to achieve, and how long it takes, depends a lot on how much energy we demand. And we won’t become serious about using less energy, if someone else keeps paying for our offset. We are simply more prone to wasting ‘free’ things. This is as true for individuals as for subsidised big business.

However, neither can solve the climate crisis by their own accountability without the other. Businesses cannot move quickly to low carbon solutions if the public doesn’t want it or can’t pay for it. The public will not take on hardship and change habits to go low carbon if they don’t see companies and the wealthy also doing so.

The most successful countries in this transition are not the ones with the most technology. They’re the ones with the least societal cheating, and the most national unity.

But what if my country does have societal double standards?

What if someone is rich enough that they don’t care about changing habits, and will just pay whatever the amount required to offset the carbon footprint of their lifestyle?

The best approach is to actually change one’s lifestyle to be less carbon intensive in the first place. But our world doesn’t just have a problem with SDG13 (climate action). It also has problems with the other 16, and in most cases the wealthy do not want to change their lifestyles. But they are more likely to agree to offset it, since they have the money to do so.

So at least, if they will offset their emissions, they’d still be funding a heck of a lot of carbon removal projects, which we do need in the immediate term. Remember, the most important carbon projects are the ones that can happen today.

So don’t worry about them, for now. Anyway, they are not who generate a social tipping point.

Generating a social tipping point

Let’s take another contemporary movement: the movement against single-use plastic. (Sometimes it’s easier to understand something when you see a related example.)

You could say that it’s entirely the associated industries’ responsibility to recover plastic waste, or not to use plastic frivolously at all. Yet everyone got away with it for so long, that the problem can no longer simply be solved by banning it. It simply grew to be too large. Everyone became dependent on it.

Yet today, zero waste products are becoming more and more mainstream. Just 10 years ago, this was difficult to imagine. There was simply no market for it (ask your nearest Gen X environmentalist). At best, people tried to reduce the plastic waste, or recycle. At best, companies innovated to reduce plastic content in packaging.

The tipping point came when zero waste groups tried not to generate plastic waste. The shock of finding it nearly impossible turned the magnitude of the plastic pollution problem into public knowledge. Charismatic marine animals dying of plastic turned the knowledge emotional and viral.

It led to more people attempting to go plastic free, which made it possible to set up zero waste shops to meet the demand. And it led to communities from Guatemala to India reviving their pre-plastic solutions.

The circular economy concept only gained momentum, after the social tipping point.

Now, the circular economy is not a new concept. It actually goes back at least as far back as the 90s. (I know because I’m in a related industry and have read the papers.) Yet it never really got adopted into capitalism, because the value was not visible to the vast majority of customers. In fact, circular models are less convenient to customers. No company can afford to spend resources on something that gave negative competitive advantage.

But then, the social tipping point was achieved.

Circular models are still less convenient (though not always). And providing the option is still not necessarily a competitive advantage. But enough people demanded the option that zero waste stores could be a viable business. And you can order low plastic products affordably on online shopping platforms.

Today, a circular economy transition is a serious discussion in economist circles and among industry leaders. It took less than 5 years after the social shift to gain traction. Its proponents have been trying for decades.

And it all boils down to one thing: enough of the ordinary public got serious about it, that they would restrain their spending behaviour accordingly.

What has this got to do with carbon offsetting?

We could just demand companies to offset their carbon footprint on their own. However, regulatory measures – on their own – are slow.

But suppose enough energy consumers become like zero waste activists, and start to restrain energy consumption according to its environmental impact, and publicly share ideas for how to do it.


I’ll pay extra for renewable energy, because the surcharge is still cheaper than carbon offsetting it.

We’ll take just one vacation and regionally, because we can’t afford to offset the carbon footprint for intercontinental flights for all of us.

Hey, did you know this tour comes with a carbon offset included?

This is how far we got the electricity bill down to, since we got a smart meter!


Individually, these offsets would not make a dent in carbon emissions. But collectively, they set a new demand that carbon emissions should be offset. Which tells businesses that consumers understand the value. Which leads to some of them daring to offer it – not just to consumers, but to other businesses as well. And the positive spiral begins.

And that is why, at this time in history, you might want to offset your carbon footprint. Not because the actual carbon removed by your offset matters so much. But because we are all networked, and your action of offsetting something ripples through the network.

Dhigurah at slack tide | Maldives vacation | sustainable travel

3. If I offset my carbon footprint, does it support development of green technologies?

Not directly. When you offset your carbon footprint, it does not go towards R&D for new green technologies.

This is basically like owing money to your friend, but instead of paying him back, you invest in another friend’s business so that she – maybe – might make enough money sometime in the future, and pay back the first friend!

What the offset does support, is the uptake and deployment of existing low carbon technologies.

For example, if you are interested in the ongoing work to electrify aviation, so that flights do not need jet fuel. This is not a carbon offsetting project – yet.

But let’s say the technology is finally here, but it is not profitable enough to switch to it. Then, in theory, they can apply to issue carbon credits which may make the investment hurdle easier to overcome, so that airlines can change out their fleet more quickly.

Until then, it is not a carbon offsetting project, because no carbon emissions are actually removed or avoided by your financial contribution. Not to mention that it could turn out to be profitable, in which case it wouldn’t need funding from offsets.

That said, offsetting your carbon emissions does indirectly support low carbon technology development. Investment in low carbon R&D becomes more likely if there is a widely accepted mechanism to recognise a technology’s value of simply being low carbon, separately from how it makes a business more profitable.

'Carbon Offsetting Cheat Sheet - How to Understand the Terms' article on sustainable travel blog Teja on the Horizon

4. If I travel by air, should I offset my carbon footprint with the airline?

Ideally, the cost to offset your flight carbon footprint would already be in the fare. But today, it is not yet the case. Conscious travellers can play a role by indicating that carbon offsetting is something that we want.

Should you, therefore, offset your flight carbon footprint with the airline (assuming the option is available)? Or should you buy carbon credits from the voluntary carbon market?

There’s no single answer to this. On the one hand, if you offset your flight carbon footprint through the airline, it is a direct signal to the business that you are in favour of carbon neutral flights. Additionally, if the airline has a carbon offsetting project for their own emissions, and is simply extending it to customers, then it could also be a very affordable option.

The biggest worry that people have about offsetting flight emissions with the airline, is legitimacy. Good offsetting programmes would be able to tell you what standard they use to verify the offset, for example the Gold Standard. They should be responsive to queries about audit reports.

If you are in doubt over either of these things, then it is equally easy to go to a carbon offsetting provider instead. Doing it via an aviation-specific service like Flightnook still gives a direct signal to the industry that you are in favour of carbon neutral flight, albeit not directly to the airline you’re flying with.

5. If I travel by train, should I still offset my carbon footprint?

Yes. But it’s not a big deal.

The above sections would have helped you distinguish between the different things that all need to happen for effective climate action:

  1. reduce overall energy demand
  2. reduce carbon emissions from industry sectors
  3. increase carbon removal activities

Now, supporting any of the three will help. Your decision to travel by train instead of a more carbon intensive option (e.g. car), contributes to the first goal. Indirectly, it also contributes to the second one, because you remove your consumer demand for energy intensive transport. This means that the low carbon mobility option grows, rather than the high carbon ones.

But you can also offset the carbon footprint of the train trip, and it would be very affordable because the emissions are so low. For perspective, offsetting my train work commute for the whole of 2019 cost me just $1. I personally do it for completeness, since I already offset my energy footprint. And I will stop when my local public transport options are powered by renewables.

On the other hand, making this switch drops your carbon footprint so much, that it’s really just a bonus to offset the remainder. Check it out yourself from a carbon calculator, like in the linked article below.

6. Is carbon offsetting the same as just planting trees?

Planting trees is good! But it’s not carbon offsetting.

Now, planting forests can qualify as a carbon offsetting project, if it fulfils the criteria (read more here). It is also the most popular way to offset your carbon footprint, for several reasons.

For starters, compared to other methods of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, reforestation is often cheaper.

Secondly, it usually also helps with another environmental crisis, the Biodiversity Crisis (remember, climate change is not our planet’s only crisis!). This is why I don’t see major issues with first mover industries prioritising nature-based offsets in their plan to go carbon neutral. After all, this option would max out. By then, carbon pricing would ideally be normal, and grow other carbon removal methods.

Thirdly, planting forests has a broad public appeal. That’s probably why we hear about it the most.

Bukit Gasing forest trail flanked by ferns and trees | Gasing Hill, Petaling Jaya

Now, what is the difference between just planting trees, and planting trees as a carbon offsetting project? After all, both ways remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

Think about it in terms of putting out a house on fire. Just planting trees is like handing over as many buckets of water you can get hold of, to put out the fire. Planting trees as a carbon offsetting project is like doing that, but making sure it actually reaches the fire, and in such a way that it also funds the fire department itself, so that frequency of fires can slowly be reduced.

What are other types of carbon offsetting projects?

There are actually many ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere, or prevent new carbon emissions. At this time, some of the more common projects through which you can offset your carbon footprint include:

There are also new forms of promising carbon capture mechanisms in development. Some examples:

Betting climate action on reforestation alone is very risky. The planet has already warmed enough that forest fires are now more likely in places like Australia and Canada, releasing the stored forest carbon in one go.

Nobody knows what the future climate will be like, so we don’t know which carbon capture methods will work and which will be at risk due to climate change itself. So, that is why it cannot just be about planting trees, and why we need all of the options on the table.


US style corporate management promotes senior managers who see staff in terms of their job grade, like parts in a machine. So if two people happen to be in the same job grade, therefore they must be interchangeable.

As a kind of LOTR fan, I have to nitpick the phrasing and clarify that the reason why the One Ring was the least dangerous with a hobbit, is because hobbits just want to live life and get along, ie hobbits aren’t tempted to “rule them all”.


Was this useful? Let me know below! And share!

I write this article as a non-ideological environmental science practitioner in the non-Western developing world, with >15 years in the energy industry, not as a sustainable travel blogger.

6 Responses

  1. Your ability to distill complicated information into an easy-to-understand format is incredible. Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

  2. hadi says:

    Thanks for putting together such an informative + comprehensive post! I love to travel and often worry about how terrible it is for the environment.

    • Teja says:

      You’re welcome! The way we travel these days is quite bad for the environment indeed. We definitely need as many people as possible to change to new ways to do all the things we value, in ways that stay sustainable.

  3. Farrah says:

    Thanks for putting together such an informative + comprehensive post! I love to travel (although not presently) and often worry about how terrible it is for the environment, so it’s definitely good to know what counts/doesn’t really count and things that we can do that would help!

    • Teja says:

      I’m glad you found it useful! This is a complicated topic, with many things interlinked. Because it is a global issue, I wanted to frame it properly so that discussions and people’s decisions about it are constructive and appreciate the different obstacles different places have. Not to mention the all important *nuance* – that just because we can’t do everything, doesn’t mean what we can do doesn’t matter, or that just because we have done one thing, doesn’t mean we can’t do two things!

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