Carbon offsets: A controversial way to fight climate change

At McGill, a university that boasts a large international student body and faculty, it is no surprise that many people rely on air travel to return for the start of the semester. Globally, the number of annual airline passengers in the past 15 years has more than doubled, increasing from 1.9 billion in 2004 to 4.3 billion in 2018. Worryingly, the transportation sector, particularly the airline industry, is the fastest-growing emitter of greenhouse gases and, thus, a major contributor to climate change.

As individuals and institutions seek to reduce their carbon footprint, many turn to purchasing carbon offsets, sold by independent companies such as Carbon Offset Reserve and Plan Vivo. Carbon offsetting is a way of counteracting carbon emissions: By purchasing carbon offsets, parties provide funding for greenhouse gas reduction projects and activities. Carbon offset projects include renewable energy programs, methane capture from landfills or farms, and carbon sequestration projects such as reforestation. 

While carbon offsetting represents a quick fix to mitigating climate change, McGill Climate Officer Aileen Rivers explained that it should not be viewed as a panacea nor as an excuse to ignore the environmental effects of daily decisions. Indeed, some have even argued that offsetting allows us to consume guilt-free, similar to the Catholic church’s notorious promise to absolve sins through the sale of indulgences.

“It is important to be clear that carbon offsetting brings companies or a person back to the baseline they were already at,” Rivers said in an interview with The McGill Tribune. “It does not reduce emissions any further from the level they were at to begin with.” 

Rivers detailed that, while offsetting is a good strategy, it should be used in conjunction with lifestyle changes rather than in isolation. This is especially important because it is not always possible to ensure that the purchased offset will have a beneficial effect since the carbon market varies widely in quality. 

In fact, some offsets are thought to have no net climate benefit. For example, protecting forests in a certain location might simply shift logging to a forest in another area. Among other criteria, high-quality offsets should be accurately quantified, verified by a third party, and involve stakeholders. Certain offset projects are endorsed according to these criteria by organisations like Gold Standard.

McGill recently received $1.8 million in government funding to reduce energy consumption and decrease total energy emissions by 18 per cent by 2022. With the goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2040, McGill is supporting community members who want to purchase offsets for unavoidable emissions through the creation of an offset selection committee that accounts for the necessary criteria to classify an offset as high quality. In theory, this will ensure that the offset is successful, and that no negative consequences arise. 

Though offsets are important, Rivers suggests small lifestyle changes to reduce environmental impact in the long term, such as using public transport when possible, reducing power usage, and avoiding travelling by plane. If air travel is necessary, however, people should choose economy seating and direct flights, since packing in more passengers and reducing takeoffs and landings increases fuel efficiency. Eating locally and reducing the consumption of animal products are also key to decreasing greenhouse gas emissions.

“I believe it is a fallacy that individual choices cannot make a difference,” Rivers said. “Little things aggregate and lead to something more significant.” 

Rivers also recommends using a personal emissions calculator to target which lifestyle changes are most needed. By implementing small changes and being held accountable, these small adjustments will accumulate to bigger lifestyle transitions.

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