Carbon Offsets are a Joke

I have been doing a lot of traveling the past two months and therefore a lot of catching up on stacks of magazines. It seems that everybody and their brother has felt a need to do a “green issue” lately (or in Island’s case, a “blue issue” just to be different). Green as in “save the planet,” not green as in more money in the bank, though that probably has a little to do with it as well.

I was struck by several conflicts as I went through all these environmentally conscious issues from Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, Travel & Leisure, Islands, Condé Nast Traveler, National Geographic Adventure, Fortune, National Geographic Traveler, The Week, and others I can’t recall at the moment. I even saw a Vanity Fair green issue on the airport newsstand.

1) Only the one from The Week was online only. The others were the usual concoction of chemical inks on highly processed paper, shipped from afar, with the bulk of the newsstand copies being returned unsold and shredded. No recycled paper, no soy inks, and still full of those annoying subscription cards that flutter all over your lap and the floor.

2) Most of the “green resort” initiatives praised are for hotels that are $250 and up per night, often reached after a long drive on bad roads – or in a helicopter perhaps? (The greenest hotel I’ve ever slept in – and I’ve been in a lot – costs less than one-tenth that amount, but they don’t advertise.)

3) I couldn’t help but notice that many of the same magazines telling us how to travel more responsibly are the same ones promoting conspicuous consumption in nearly every ad, with private jets, gas-guzzling luxury cars, private island vacation homes, and expensive handbags shipped across an ocean or two.

4) Carbon offsets are a joke.

No, none of the magazine articles will come right out and say it for #4, but more than a few hint at the idea that offsets are designed more to assuage an energy hog’s guilt than to really make a difference. Despite what some would have you believe, driving from New York to Acapulco will definitely result in more tons of carbon spewed than flying there will (whatever the heck a ton of carbon dioxide gas really is). As T&L noted in The Truth About Carbon Offsetting, taking a train from Paris to Rome is the best option by far, but even a small 2-liter diesel car would put out more pollution than your share of a plane ride.

Plus if you fly somewhere and stay in a local hotel with modest energy use and use public transportation, your resulting carbon footprint will be far smaller than someone who offsets their carbon use but then spends the vacation in an energy-sucking resort and on golf courses, using rental cars, fishing charters, and jet skis. While the magazines don’t want to offend advertisers by pointing all this out, bloggers like Antonio Malchik, James Van Dellen, and Don George have taken a stab at viewing the whole picture.

Carbon offsets are just a vain attempt to find an easy answer to a complex problem without easy answers. Budget Travel noted in this article that collects $36 to offset a flight from New York City to L.A., while charges $97. The two others they polled were in the middle.

But my car gets 34 miles to the gallon and I work out of my house, so what about that? Yesterday I saw one of those massive RVs the size of a tour bus traveling down the interstate highway towing a Hummer behind it. You’re telling me I need to offset my emissions because I’m flying and those fatties don’t need to because they’re driving? Plus when most of us travel, we turn down the fridge, put the lights on timers, turn off the hot water heater, and adjust the heat or A/C because we’re away—plus we’re not commuting to work while we’re gone. Where does all that figure into the offset equation?

There’s the big conundrum: air travel is just one tiny part of the story. While it’s easy to pick on air travel as the big evil, cars spew out more pollution overall, as do boats. Plus how many of those boats aren’t even going anywhere? Just joy rides on yachts that get two swells to the gallon.

National Geographic Adventure printed a statistic that “If one million U.S. airline passengers skipped one coast-to-coast flight, it could eliminate the emission of one million tons of CO2.” Ummmm, okay, but where’s the context? If one million people stopped mowing their lawns a month earlier in the fall, I bet it would make that airline stat look like a rounding error. A recent AP article said the California wildfires this month released the equivalent CO2 of 1 million cars being driven every day for a year. So how about we keep flying but just stop building houses in the desert?

When it comes to travel, the real problem is that the industry is inherently at odds with the whole idea of truly green travel. The biggest travel companies (and therefore advertisers) are often the biggest energy hogs. The kind of tourism most travel magazines promote is usually the most wasteful. Let’s face it: a cruise line by its very nature and mission can never be very good for the planet. As Paul Brady from Jaunted noted after attending Condé Nast Traveler’s World Savers Congress 2007, “We never did end up hearing how the travel industry could go green without pandering. (The constant mentions of how selling ‘green’ travel improves the bottom line didn’t convince us that the industry has wholly altruistic motives.)”

In the end, however, it’s what you do every day that really matters. If carbon offsets make you feel better, go to it. It seems to me though that the big market for this is people who are really wasteful the other 350 days of the year when they’re not flying. I’m not one of them. I compost. I walk or bike more than I drive. My last 30-day electric bill for our 3-bedroom house was $58. I recycle religiously and buy lots of local produce in season. Heck, I even drink local Yazoo beer at my neighborhood bars.

When I go on vacation, I make sure my local impact is always more positive than negative. So no, I won’t be buying any carbon offset credits anytime soon. I’ll keep planting trees and shrubs on my lot though and letting the low-water Bermuda grass turn brown in the winter. I’ll continue to think global, act local, and see the big picture.

If you would like to find out how to reduce your impact at your destination, however, here are some good places to start:
Conservation International


  1. Josie 11/28/2007
  2. Sheila Scarborough 11/28/2007
  3. james 11/29/2007
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  5. foxnomad 11/29/2007
  6. tim 11/30/2007
  7. John Nicholls 12/01/2007
  8. Ron Mader 12/03/2007
  9. tim 12/03/2007
  10. Mike 12/05/2007
  11. Sean 12/13/2007
  12. Camille 04/06/2011
  13. Mac James 11/19/2012
  14. Alisha Mohler 09/18/2018

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