Are Carbon Offsets Legit?

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Photo courtesy of

Air travel is pretty normal for most people these days. Most people end up flying a few times a year for holidays, weddings, business, and vacations. A few years ago, airlines and airfare websites started adding an option to purchase carbon offsets. What are carbon offsets exactly and are they legit? It’s something I’ve seen and wondered about but never went through with. Along with the purchase price of the airfare, I also wasn’t keen on spending more money on something I didn’t know was legit or not.

Last week, I ended up buying an airplane ticket to fly to Seattle for my sister’s birthday in a few months. She had suggested carbon offsets as a topic for this blog before, so I thought it was a perfect time to see if I could buy some carbon offsets and see what they really are. I went through Expedia, Orbitz, and Virgin America, only to find no carbon offset options. So now, it was up to me to do some research of my own to see what carbon offsets are and how much I needed to buy to negate my trip to Seattle.

So the basic idea behind carbon offsets is to compensate for the carbon you create. First, you should be trying as hard as possible to reduce waste, recycle, buy less and smartly, and reduce your overall impact on the earth. It is nearly impossible to entirely erase your carbon footprint though, so that’s where buying the carbon offsets come in. They are, in theory, supposed to zero out the rest of your carbon footprint so that you can live a carbon free life. Individuals can do this, and so can companies. For this post, I’ll focus on the individuals like us. We can buy carbon offsets for our lifestyle or for single instances like an airplane trip.

The money you give for carbon offset programs are used in many different ways. All with end goals to reduce the amount of carbon in the air, either by taking out existing carbon or preventing it in the first place. Forestry programs are a big one where trees get planted and forests are maintained. Trees are a popular method to reduce carbon in the air. Other programs can create alternative forms of energy production. Instead of coal plants, your money could be invested in wind or solar power. Money can be used for energy efficient buildings or distributing earth-friendly appliances to people who need them. There are many ways carbon offset programs work, and a legitimate company will tell you what their program does and how they implement it.

There is a controversy over carbon offsets. People against carbon offsets say that it allows people to simply buy carbon offsets to be earth-friendly, instead of actually taking action to reduce their impact. Critics say that businesses use carbon offsets to justify their unclean practices. Instead of actually trying to make their business run with less of a carbon footprint, they simply purchase carbon offsets. Other cons are that there are many carbon offset companies that can be scams or just out for profit. Some forestry efforts do not result in any carbon reduction at all. If the trees planted only survive one year, then not a lot of carbon has been reduced.

Overall, carbon offsets are another method to try to reduce our impact. If properly done, we would only buy carbon offsets after doing all we could to minimize our impact. Plane trips are one example, as there’s not much I can do to minimize that, other than driving or taking a train.

So now, I needed to figure out how much carbon to actually offset for my flight. Using a flight calculator I found online (which may or may not be entirely accurate), this is how much carbon one round-trip to Seattle would create:

660.593 pounds of carbon = 0.33 tons of carbon (1 ton is 2000 pounds)

Now that I knew how much carbon my flight would approximately create, I then needed to research how to buy carbon offsets. Most carbon offsets programs are run by for-profit businesses. Since those are harder to research and ensure they are legitimate, I decided to find a charity instead. Also, by donating money to a charity, I get the potential tax breaks too!

I decided to go with the Nature Conservancy. They are a decently well known charity that has a three out of four star rating on Charity Navigator. Always research charities and make sure they are well rated on Charity Navigator before donating! There are plenty of scam charities out there ready to take your money. The Nature Conservancy also has a section where they really explain carbon offsets and how their program works. Their carbon offset program starts with donations at $15 for a ton. Since my flight to Seattle is 0.33 tons, technically $5 should cover that. I went ahead and donated $10 to cover two round-trip flights to Seattle though. I’ll be going up there in the near future again at some point anyway.

The Nature Conservancy Carbon Offset Program FAQ’s
Charity Navigator

Buying carbon offsets to reduce your overall impact is another thing that you can do. I’ll have to look how much my lifestyle affects my carbon output at some point. Of course, my attempts at reducing my carbon footprint are absolutely essential! I’ll keep working on that and hopefully will reduce it down as much as possible.

For further reading, check these two links out.
Wikipedia – Carbon Offset
How Stuff Works

What’s your opinion of carbon offsets?

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  1. yay! carbon offsets. thank you for researching this. i’m surprised. it is a lot cheaper than i expected to buy offsets.

    • It is a lot more inexpensive than I thought too actually. It was pretty interesting to research. I can see where the controversy part comes in. It’s meant to be a good thing, but somehow it always gets skewed by people and businesses out for profit only.