Carbon Offsets (and Sin Forgiveness)

Flying has a very high carbon footprint, which many people try to negate in their minds by buying offsets.
Illustration by Avery Adamson

A carbon offset is something you can buy to (supposedly) negate the climate damage you’ve done by burning fossil fuels. But whether this happens, or the offset just makes you feel better, is a big question.

Redemption for a fee.

In the late middle ages, wealthy sinners could purchase something called an ‘indulgence’ from a representative of the Catholic Church, in return for promised salvation from eternal damnation. Some of the wealthiest buyers were told their sins would be forgiven for thousands of years. But this practice stopped during the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, after being criticized by Martin Luther and many others.

Paying for indulgences didn’t undo the sins these people had committed, or the damage of those sins. It just made them feel better, and made them look better to their peers.

Carbon offsets are similar, in a way. People and corporations buy these offsets to balance out their climate ‘sins’ (e.g. high-emitting activities like flying) and it makes them feel better and greener. But offsets don’t reverse the original climate damage.

There are many types of climate offsets, and many organizations selling them. Some use the funds to plant trees, which help absorb carbon. Others may fund climate cleanups, for example stopping methane leaks from gas wells. And still others might fund technology development for carbon capture or other ways of controlling greenhouse gasses.

But it’s hard to verify or measure whether these offset funds actually had an impact. Did the trees get planted, and were they allowed to grow to full size? How many methane leaks actually got capped? Did the money for carbon capture development get spent well?

Yes, these investments may be deserving of funding. But if you really want to lessen your destructive impact on the planet, just don’t burn the carbon to begin with! (e.g. don’t take that flight)

Because once you’ve committed the sin, no amount of money (or greenwashing) will undo it.