Ask G

Ask G: Should I offset my carbon?

Carbon offsets are all the rage, but is it really the right thing to do?

Dear G, I want to do the right thing by the environment when I travel but there's a lot of scepticism about carbon offsets - are they all they're cracked up to be?

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Credit: iStockphoto

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It's true: not all carbon offset schemes are created equal. But first, let's look at why it is vitally important to offset your travel…

A return trip from Australia to Europe generates as many greenhouse emissions as driving a standard car for two years. Even just a standard Sydney-Melbourne flight (1,400km return) creates half a tonne of greenhouse gas emissions.

So what is offsetting?

When you pay a fee to an offsets program, your payment goes towards a program - tree planting, wind or solar power projects, for example - that aims to reduce CO2 by the same amount as your flight creates, effectively cancelling out, neutralising or "offsetting" your emissions.

Some offset providers promote tree-planting as a method of offsetting, or neutralising, emissions generated when you travel. The theory goes that a growing tree will absorb CO2, therefore reducing the amount in the atmosphere.

The problem with tree-planting is that it's long-term, whereas the problem of emissions is right here and now.

Trees also take time to grow - they have to survive for a certain amount of time to soak up enough CO2 to make them offset-worthy (of course they're still worthy in and of themselves just for being trees).

When trees die, they release their stored carbon back into the atmosphere. The planet would have to be virtually wall-to-wall trees to cope with all our man-made emissions, and that's not going to happen anytime soon (in fact the reverse is happening in many places).

Offsets can also encourage the attitude that you can 'travel anywhere you like, as often as you like, as long as you offset'. It has been argued that some corporate fat-cats and politicians - not to mention celebrities - with jet-setting lifestyles do this: offsetting to convey that they care about the environment and perhaps make themselves feel better.

But you can't buy your way out of taking responsibility for your emissions.

That's why it's better to try and reduce your emissions in the first place, before you offset. Besides, it'll also save you money, as you'll have less to offset.

All these reasons have led to some scepticism about the whole carbon offsetting thing. But let's not throw the offset baby out with the tree-planting bathwater.

Some offset schemes have a dual advantage of investing in clean, green energy technologies to avoid greenhouse gas emissions at the source, instead of treating emissions once they've happened as tree-planting does. So it's definitely worth looking into.

The Carbon Offset Guide is a great resource for checking out which method offsetters use and any accreditation they have.