Everything You Need to Know About Purchasing Carbon Offsets for Travel

PHOTO: Photo by Jakub Gorajek on Unsplash

Is offsetting your travel footprint really worth it?

There’s no better cure for wanderlust than putting the final touches on an exciting trip itinerary. But with our increasingly-illuminating understanding of how travel can negatively impact the environment, the guilt of knowing that a well-earned dream vacation is adding to carbon emissions is enough to dampen the spirits of any traveler.

If you’re one of those jet-setters starting to think about how your love for travel is impacting the world, don’t ignore it. Understanding just how much environmental damage your flight or trip is generating is the first step to reducing your impact. For example, a round trip flight from London to New York generates 2,100 lbs of CO2 (carbon dioxide) per passenger, which is more than the average person in 56 countries (such as Paraguay and Burundi) contributes in an entire year. Air travel has increased by 300 percent since 1990, and that number is only expected to rise.

So, why is carbon dioxide so bad? For starters, it is a powerful greenhouse gas that traps heat into the atmosphere. While there are others (like methane and nitrous oxide), CO2 has widely been considered to be the most damaging due to its large quantities and rapid growth. Though CO2 does occur in nature, it is also emitted at immense levels by human activity, mainly through the burning of fossil fuels. This puts the earth’s natural balance in jeopardy by warming the planet’s climate, making the oceans more acidic and generally wreaking havoc.

This knowledge doesn’t mean you have to cut down on experiences completely or miss out on crossing that destination off your bucket list. More and more people are choosing to implement eco-friendly routines and sustainability into certain areas of their lives, including travel. 

That’s where the concept of “carbon offsets” comes in. The phrase refers to an action or monetary contribution that compensates for the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, usually as a result of commercialized human activity. Major companies linked to travel such as Delta Airlines, United Airlines, and Lyft already have carbon offset programs committed to making their plane and car rides more carbon neutral. There are also a variety of independent organizations around the world claiming to conduct carbon offsetting projects that can help you even out your carbon footprint through donations.

It’s a respectable concept to be sure, but is it legitimate? More importantly, how can you be sure that your well-intended money is going towards an authentic operation and not a scam aimed at duping do-gooders? Here’s how to get started mastering the art of carbon offsets.

Start Calculating

Before you begin to think about where to put your carbon offset money, start by measuring your travel footprint for specific trips. Or, take the plunge into determining your carbon footprint for all areas of your life (in the home, daily commute, etc.). The best way to do this is with free online flight calculators.

TerraPass has the power to calculate on the individual, business or event level, and measures flight travel based off of specific flights, miles traveled, gallons of fuel used and average trip length. You can then choose to purchase enough offsets to cover monthly estimates or specific trips by donating money towards a combination of projects. Projects sponsored by TerraPass are all certified and registered under licensed third party organizations that assure quality in offset programs.

In addition to the convenience of including up to three flight itineraries to a calculation, Carbon Footprint can help measure the carbon emissions created from your home, utilities or morning commute. Once you’ve determined how many metric tons or pounds of carbon dioxide your trip has generated, instantly choose from a wide range of partner programs to donate to. All programs provide full transparency and information on certifications so you can see for yourself exactly where the money is going.

Do Your Research

Once you’ve finished calculating your carbon footprint, don’t be afraid to do some digging. Go with companies that are straightforward about where your money will be spent. Look for at least one published certification from a reputable environmental agency. There are several different types of carbon offset programs, such as reforestation, renewable energy, and carbon or methane capture. A legitimate company asking for donations has no reason not to be transparent. Look for programs certified by the Climate Action Reserve, which establishes and oversees high-quality carbon offset projects, or the Verified Carbon Standard, a leading international non-profit program that certifies carbon emission removal projects.

Make It Personal

One of the best aspects of carbon offsetting is that the individual can choose to contribute to a cause that is important to them. Choose a program that speaks to you. Don’t feel comfortable about throwing money at an online organization? Join a local tree-planting club or beach clean-up. Buying carbon offsets is only one way to compensate for travel pollution.

Studies have shown that carbon offsets are so much more than a feel-good movement. Programs often provide additional co-benefits and socio-economic impacts such as stimulating a local economy by providing jobs, increasing the overall health of communities through ecosystem conservation, elevating female empowerment and improving food accessibility.

If you’re still unsure about which program to contribute to, go with a well-known and credible company that specializes in carbon offsetting such as Sustainable Travel International or The Conservation Fund.

Above and Beyond

Buying non-stop flights can help reduce the amount of carbon produced by your trip, as planes burn the most fuel during take-off and landing (and let’s face it, who doesn’t need an excuse to splurge on a direct flight?). You can also do your part by packing light to reduce the overall weight of the plane, thereby lessening the production of emissions.