Can You Pay to Shrink Your Carbon Footprint?

Companies that sell carbon offsets say they can undo environmental damage. Experts say some are better at it than others.

Plane cut out of green leave on cloud background Illustration: Kiersten Essenpreis

Tourism-related transportation emissions represented more than 20 percent of all transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions in 2016, a trend that will continue through 2030, according to the UN World Tourism Organization. Meanwhile, over 61 percent of respondents in a recent poll said that they want to travel more sustainably in the future.

In response to increased awareness and concern over the warming planet, a growing number of airlines are offering customers the chance to purchase carbon offsets that, in theory at least, erase the CO2 emissions generated by their trips. But can paying a small premium really undo the environmental harm of your flight?

How Carbon Offsets Work

Airlines including American, United, Delta, and Southwest let customers click a box during the booking process to add a small charge to the cost of their ticket. That money goes to partners that direct it to projects such as planting trees, protecting forests, creating wind farms, and providing efficient cookstoves to people in the developing world, all of which can offset, or reduce, CO2 emissions.

Carbon offsets aren’t limited to airlines. Buy a box of pancake mix from Kodiak Cakes and you’ll be asked if you want to add 50 cents to neutralize the shipping emissions from your delivery. But while carbon offsets are framed as a way for consumers to shrink their carbon footprint, critics say they send the wrong message.

“Offsets could give the false impression that corporations do not need to decarbonize their own operations, or that consumers only need to pay to undo the environmental impacts caused by their consumption,” says Quinta Warren, Consumer Reports’ associate director of climate, energy, and sustainability policy.

Can Offsets Really Reduce My Carbon Footprint?

In theory, yes. But it all depends on the quality of the offsets, which can be difficult to determine. For example, if the money you’re paying is going to replant part of a forest that would have been replanted anyway, or if you’re paying to protect a forest that is already protected, you’re not really offsetting anything. A recent article published in Yale Environment 360 states that there’s an “additionality” problem: Many offsets are paying “entities that were already committed to storing the carbon.” 

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“Some of it is outright fraudulent, and a lot of times it is not additional, which is to say, it doesn’t cause something to happen that wouldn’t have happened in the absence of your money,” says Roger Aines, energy program chief scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

“The biggest challenge for consumers today is that there is no good clearinghouse that says this is a good offset and that others are not,” Aines says. “Second, most of these offsets operate well below the real price of actually removing that CO2 from the air. Some of them are just a few dollars per ton.” Aines says that $100 per tonne is a more realistic figure.

Considering his skepticism, you might assume that Aines scoffs when he sees a carbon offset box pop up while making a purchase. You’d be wrong. 

“I do check the box,” he says. “If I can encourage someone to plant trees in Peru, I’m glad I did that, even if the program might not be as good as I’d like it to be. But fundamentally at my core, I think they work.” 

Buying Offsets That Count

You don’t need to buy an airline ticket (or pancake mix) to offset your carbon footprint. Some providers will let you offset the annual emissions from your home, your car, or even your wedding.

If you’re interested in offsetting your carbon footprint, “look for responsible third-party-verified vendors and service providers,” says Gregory Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsible Travel in Washington, D.C. Two widely respected nonprofit, third-party organizations that verify claims made by carbon offset providers are Climate Action Reserve and Gold Standard. Several offset providers stand out in terms of transparency, including the following: 

Cool Effect, the nonprofit that partners with American Airlines, offers calculators on its site that allow you to see an estimate of your annual carbon footprint, or estimate the tonnes of carbon emitted during a potential trip, whether you’re traveling by plane or car and whether the destination is a cruise or hotel. On its site, you can view projects including a 16,000-acre conservation easement for a CO2-absorbing grassland in Montana that would otherwise be converted to cropland, and a program that places more efficient cookstoves in rural homes in Honduras and claims to reduce carbon emissions by about 3 tonnes per stove per year. 

Terrapass, a for-profit company that works with Expedia, offers “living plans” (monthly offset buys), flight offsets, event offsets (say, for a wedding), and more. An array of projects and third-party certifications and standards are available on their site. sells credits à la carte. You can offset, say, the CO2 emitted from a 1,500 square-foot house (16,500 pounds of CO2 a year, for $121.88); your SUV (20,000 pounds of CO2 a year, for $147.39), or a 10,000-mile flight, equivalent to a NYC-to-Istanbul round trip (4,175 pounds of CO2, for $32.50). Like Cool Effect, you can browse the different projects funded by your offset, including a program to build a wind farm in Texas and one that reforests parts of the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley. Similar to Cool Effect, the projects use several standards to ensure their environmental integrity and are validated by third-party services. You can really go down a rabbit hole researching which of them you’d like to support.

Even if these projects are imperfect, they’re a start, Aines says. “These programs prove that you can reduce your carbon footprint without shivering in the dark,” he says. “And you don’t need to give up travel or other things you love to do it. But we need more consumer pressure to make them even better.”