You’re planning a holiday and you’re excited. You have plotted your route around festivals and natural wonders you want to see and now, it’s time to book your flights. At the bottom of the web form, the airliner asks if you’d like to offset the carbon created by your trip. It costs you $3.25. “Sure,” you think, “it can’t hurt to do my bit for the environment”.

So what if I told you it can hurt?

Carbon credits for flights are common but aren’t as simple as they look. Picture: Fuzz, CC.

Carbon credits for flights are common but aren’t as simple as they look. Picture: Fuzz, CC.

Carbon offsets, or credits, are a simple enough concept: You, the consumer or business, pay an amount based on how much climate-change causing Co2 your activities are expected to create, which a company (usually a third party) invests in a project that helps reduce carbon in the atmosphere. But there are two big problems.

The first is that projects vary in their scope and aims – from carbon sequestration (sticking it back in the ground) to habitat preservation to forestry. Yes, you read that right: Your offsets are paying for the forestry industry – those paradigms of virtue – to plant more trees so they can cut them down in two years to make more profit and paper. Presumably they will use that paper to print more flyers about the wonder of carbon offsets.

Worth an estimated $523 million last year, the carbon offset industry is new and widely unregulated, which means there are snake oil salesmen who could be asking you to invest in projects that don’t exist, or double counting their project’s impact. The US Federal Trade Commission released guidelines for carbon credit advertising but they’re short on detail and in any case, voluntary.

If a tree falls in the forest and you don’t care, does it still fall? Spoiler: Yes. Picture: Mickael Delcey (Silverkey), CC

If a tree falls in the forest and you don’t care, does it still fall? Spoiler: Yes. Picture: Mickael Delcey (Silverkey), CC

Which brings me to the second problem with carbon offsets. It may say carbon but what you’re really doing is offsetting your environmental guilt. Friends of the Earth called it a dangerous distraction and others likened it to the practice of buying medieval “indulgences”. Even the Natural Resources Defense Council said carbon offsets were “not a golden ticket” to easy climate change action.

“Offsets are meant to complement, not replace, efforts to reduce your personal carbon output or that of your business,” it wrote in a guide for consumers.

“Look to cost-effective internal reduction opportunities before looking to offsets. First, cut back on unnecessary personal energy consumption through purchasing energy efficient appliances, weatherizing your home or driving a hybrid car. Next, buy from renewable energy sources for electricity for your home and business. Finally, purchase carbon offsets to help fill in the gaps.”

Paper or plastic

The cheap, durable and perfectly evil plastic bag. Picture: Jonathan Youngblood, CC.

The cheap, durable and perfectly evil plastic bag. Picture: Jonathan Youngblood, CC.

Growing up in Australia, I was always puzzled by scenes in American movies when shopkeepers would ask: “Paper or plastic?” I thought they were asking how customers wanted to pay – paper money or plastic credit card. It turns out my mistake was prescient, because many cities are now charging for both. Policy makers projected – rightfully so – that if paper bag use would go up when you started charging for plastic.

Before the pro-plastic lobby jumps on this blog with some awe-inspiring stupidity, let’s talk about the evils of the plastic bag. In their natural state, they are single-use wonders of engineering. They get your stuff home, keep it dry and are sufficiently lightweight and cheap to produce that they’re almost free to consumers. But it’s all downhill from there in the lifecycle of the plastic bag as they go from drain-blocker to turtle-choker to tiny bits of plastic dust that everything in the ocean is ingesting all the time.

So you choose to get paper bags, right? Well, I have some bad news.

A report for the Scottish Government in 2005 found paper bags had a higher environmental impact than lightweight plastic bags because they were more difficult to produce and transport. Paper bags do biodegrade but they emit CO2 when they do and cause problems for curbside recycling schemes. What’s more, shopkeepers frequently double-bag with paper because they are not as strong; and while plastic bags are good as bin liners and poop-scoopers, paper bags are thrown out after one use in most cases.

So the answer is to bring your own bags where possible and to reuse when you can.

Free range eggs

Free range hens. Picture: XCX, Wikipedia CC.

Free range hens. Picture: XCX, Wikipedia CC.

We haven’t exactly been sold up the river on free range eggs but neither are we told the whole truth. What constitutes “free range” is different depending on where you live and actual farm practices vary widely. In the US, eggs can be called free range if the hen is able to spend at least part of the day outside (that includes a tiny open-air cage at the side of a massive barn that all chickens in the barn theoretically have access to). That means fewer cages, yes, but is hardly the utopian life we picture when we think of free range. In Australia, there are at least standards for the amount of space required per bird (10,000 per hectare in Queensland; and a voluntary 1500 per hectare elsewhere). This has led many small egg farms to become proponents of “pastured poultry”, which is much more like the image free range conjures.

If you set aside the welfare of the hens, there is evidence that battery farms are actually significantly greener than free-range equivalents. Caged chickens, it turns out, are incredibly efficient, creating 1kg of egg for every 2kg of feed. Free-range birds require 18 per cent more food – probably because they are able to expend energy exercising – and farmers have to work harder to regulate ammonia emissions from their waste.

So, like many environmental decisions, you need to weigh up sustainability with animal welfare – though you could solve this dilemma if you get your own hens or go vegan.

Three Alternatives that Are Simply Green

On your bike

Pedal-power has obvious environmental benefits. Picture: carrstuff, CC.

Pedal-power. Picture: carrstuff, CC.

While there is an environmental impact to producing and disposing of bicycles, there are no downsides to riding your bike as a way to get around. It saves on money and fuel, it’s good exercise and in big cities, it’s frequently faster than driving or taking public transport.

Even companies get it. My employer, the San Francisco Public Press, just switched to delivering almost all their papers by bike, which is cheaper, more convenient and of course greener than driving a car around our compact city.

And if you’re worried about looking unprofessional, don’t despair. Businesses big and small are catching on to bike culture plus putting in facilities to park your bike, shower and change when you get to work; and good businesses recognize the benefit of having healthy workers. And walking into a business meeting with your right trouser leg tucked into your sock identifies you as part of the green revolution.

Thinking about it

Simply thinking about your environmental impact will help you reduce it. Looking for water leaks and wasteful appliances; considering packaging when buying anything and simply thinking about the impact of your behavior will help you curb waste.

Turn the lights off when you leave the room and choose items with the least packaging you can – every action you take does have an impact.

Eat your greens

Eat more vegetables. It’s good for the earth. Picture: Steven Depolo, CC.

Eat more vegetables. It’s good for the earth. Picture: Steven Depolo, CC.

And seriously, eat less meat. The environmental case for vegetarianism is overwhelming.


This post first appeared at Sciengage, where I write the environmental science blog.