See ATTA's COVID-19 Guide for the Adventure Travel Industry

Carbon Offsets: Paying off Unsustainable Life Styles or Investing in Sustainability

11 Minute Read

AdventureTravelNews welcomes opinion editorials – submit to [email protected]

Editor’s Note: ATTA offers a free Webinar on Carbon Offsets on May 15th…read more>>

Michael Kaye, President & CEO/Founder Costa Rica Expeditions

May 12, 2008

In October 1980, a  couple of years after I started Costa Rica Expeditions, a reporter from The Tico Times, Costa Rica’s English language newspaper wrote an article about my fledgling enterprise.  Almost 20 years later, researching her book on eco-tourism, “Ecotourism and Sustainable Development.  Who Owns Paradise”, Martha Honey found my long forgotten answer to a question about what made my vision of tourism different,  “Tourism should contribute to, rather than exploit (the land)…It should be active rather than passive, emphasizing cultural exchange rather than mere sightseeing.”  Honey  called them “pioneering words.” Almost 30 years later, having watched eco-tourism fads come and go, I can’t decide whether to be proud, or wish I had kept my big mouth shot.

The new hot fad in sustainable travel these days is paying offsets for our “carbon footprint.” That is, to compensate for the amount our lifestyles contribute to the catastrophic largely man made changes that are taking place in the earth’s climate we pay money that is supposedly used to change things back.

As far as I can figure out, the way it is supposed to work is that we add up all the carbon our vacation spews into the atmosphere. Then using math way beyond the power of mere mortals to understand, experts calculate the amount of money that it would take to remove the carbon that we have put in. We then fork  over this money to carbon offset brokers, and, after covering their overhead and administrative expenses, they spend the money on sequestering carbon by natural means, or on developing renewable energy technologies that will, they claim,  result in a smaller carbon footprint from the same activities in the future.

It is a brilliantly seductive strategy.  With a small manageable financial sacrifice we “offset”  (or should it be buy off) our life styles.  Any scheme that allows sustainability gurus to guiltlessly fly around in private jets and contaminate the atmosphere much more than the ordinary citizen has got to be worthy of our respect.

Irrational symbolic fixes for potential catastrophes is nothing new.  When I was a teenager, it was nuclear holocaust.  The Russians had just gotten the hydrogen bomb.  Since the US had just snuffed 250,000 Japs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, everyone assumed that we were next.  In school the response that we were given were air raid drills in which we were made to get down beneath our desks and put our heads between our legs.  After a while they must have figured that we needed to do more to protect ourselves against a bomb that was capable of making whole islands disappear in the South Pacific, so they told us to turn away from the windows.  That was when I must have made some typically wise-ass remark.  I can’t remember what I said, but I can remember being sent to the principal’s office and accused of being a communist.  I feel now exactly the way I feel then.

As much as I would love to be able to pay for offsets and continue merrily on with my highly privileged and satisfying life, I can’t help but think that paying carbon offsets as an answer to climate change is something like taking aspirin for cancer that has very possibly metastasized.  It might be comforting to look at it as a good start. It does temporarily ease the pain and you do feel like you are doing something about it, but, if it distracts you from getting the chemo or the radiation that might really help in the long run, it is, to be charitable, a short sighted strategy

When I asked a scientist friend of mine who is one of the pioneers in climate change research what he thought of offsets, he put it very succinctly,  “The science is doubtful and the social policy is worse.”

Let’s start with the social policy.  No matter how hard you spin it, you don’t get around the fact that essentially offsets are rich people paying so that they can maintain their unsustainable life styles.

I find it particularly unfortunate that in the Travel Industry we have been especially self-deprecating by singling out the carbon footprint of travel to be offset.  Conferences brag about being carbon neutral by paying offsets by all the carbon generated by the event.  Travelers are encouraged to pay to offset carbon generated by their vacations.  It is as if we believed that carbon produced by travel melts more glaciers than the carbon that we all generate in the rest of our lives.

If our life styles are as unsustainable as the practice of offsets suggests, it seems to me that we need to change our life styles rather than paying to get ourselves off the hook.  But if we are going to buy offsets, we should at least buy them for our entire carbon footprint, not just pick on travel.

Finally even a cursory look at the literature makes it pretty clear that either offsets do not have the slightest potential to make a dent in the problem, or the threat of climate change is highly exaggerated.  Hope for this second possibility is getting slimmer every day.

When pressed offset supporters admit that offsets per se are not effective.  Then they go on to defend offsets as the solution of last resort.  After you have done everything possible to reduce your greenhouse gas admissions, they suggest, if you absolutely have to engage in polluting activities, it is better than nothing to pay some money that will used to alleviate the theory.  A quick perusal of the ecommerce sites dedicated to selling offsets shows that in almost all of them the idea of reducing emissions it appears at all is dwarfed by aggressive promoting of the sale of offsets. 

All the sites claim that the offsets are verified.  I have yet to figure out who verifies the verifiers.  No place could I find an offset ecommerce site that promotes the idea of a high enough carbon tax to actually reduce emissions enough to make a difference, and, hopefully, but the offset brokers out of business.

Nor do I find any evidence that offsets does anything other than help people justify high levels of consumption.  A friend of mine who works for a prominent magazine dedicated to travel, adventure and sustainability admitted in a conversation in which she was defending offsets that when she first became aware of the implications of climate crisis she stopped heli- skiing.  “If I was going to ski I was going to walk to the top of the mountain.”  Then she found out about offsets and started heli-skiing again.

The other defense of offsets is that even though their effect is minimal they sound good, because they “raise consciousness” and/or are a “good start.”  Sounds good, but the argument does not stand up to even minimal scrutiny.  Is there any reason to believe that when Al Gore pays offsets for the carbon footprint of his 3 houses and his private jet travel that it is a start towards him raising his consciousness to make some real sacrifices to tighten his carbon belt?

Is their historical evidence that offsets work as an educational tool or a good start?  Did the Catholic Church selling indulgences for sinful behavior in the middle ages serve as start for people to learn to sin less or did it just encourage them to keep sinning, while buying them less time in purgatory?  I am not saying here that selling indulgences for rape and pillage is the moral equivalent to selling offsets for a quick getaway to Cancun.  But it is in the same spirit.

I am also not saying that our life-styles are sinful.  My view is that rather than being sinful, we are human.  And being human we are not saints.  Al Gore does not fly around private jets because he is bad; he flies around in private jets because he can afford to—as would I.  It seems to me hypocritical to criticize Al Gore for using private jets unless you have enough money to be able to do so and do not.  But it also seems to me that a regime that allows the most prominent spokesman in the US for doing something about climate change to have an extraordinarily large carbon footprint in the long run is bound to breed more cynicism about sustainability than converts, no matter how effective it is in the short run.

What I am saying is that the cause of sustainability and dealing with the impacts of climate crisis would be much better served if we stopped trying to hoodwink ourselves and others into thinking we can offset our carbon footprints.  If we feel guilty about our carbon footprints we should reduce them or get over our guilt.  We can’t fool the glaciers into melting less.

What’s more, all of the above assumes that the money that received from the offset buyers is spent honestly.  That is a hopelessly optimistic assumption.  While there must be instances in which the money is being honestly spent on projects that promise to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, there also must be many other instances in which to put it bluntly the money is being ripped off. 

In a way even more pernicious than the out and out rip offs is offset money going to good causes dishonestly represented.  An example of this is that the majority of the money spent for offsets in Costa Rica is used to protect old growth forest in parks and reserves.  It is logical that it should be this way.  Costa Rica is famous for protecting old growth tropical forests and an impressive percentage of the national territory is under protection.  Furthermore maintaining old growth forest is a very worthy cause.  There is one small problem.  Old growth tropical forests are carbon neutral; they do not offset any carbon.  Reforestation of pastures sequesters carbon, but in Costa Rica very little of the carbon offset money goes into reforestation, because the owners of the pastures are dispersed and not connected to the international networks that dole out the offset money.  Also, in many cases the money for offsets is not enough to reforest a pasture.  It is only enough to protect a forest that you are going to protect anyway.  Gotta pay those administrative and marketing costs.

What you do get with offsets is a whole industry with a vested interest against carbon taxes that would be high enough to actually reduce the amount of carbon we generate.  As I pointed out above, with a high carbon tax, the offset brokers are going to have to find other work.

While carbon offsets do not get you a whole lot of sustainability, what they do get you is hype.  Google “First Carbon Neutral” and you get 1,930,000 results.  Costa Rica’s Nature Air, Silverjet and Netjets all claim to be the world’s first carbon neutral aviation company.  I lost count at 25 “first” carbon neutral conferences.  All through the magic of offsets.

By and large the media reports all this with a straight face.

Right now carbon neutrality through offsets is a media darling.  Years ago a week did not go by when some journalist did not ask me up about what we were doing to support local communities.  Now the media wouldn’t notice if we were running a white slavery operation in a local community as long as it was carbon neutral.

Media darlings have a way of becoming media goats.  Almost certainly in my view the press is going to start to investigate the most ridiculous claims and how the money is spent.  They will concentrate on the worse abuses and tar good and bad with the same brush.  As somebody said, “The new yellow journalism is green.”

Which brings me to the science:  Every responsible scientist that I can find believes that the climate is changing, and that on balance the impacts will be more or less catastrophic.  As time goes on, the direr the predictions of responsible mainstream scientists.  The most pessimistic, people like James Lovelock, go so far as to contemplate the possibility that eventually climate change will threaten civilization, as we know it. 

There is slightly less agreement about the relative roles of man-made factors and natural cycles, but the great preponderance of evidence is that human kind has played a decisive and negative role especially by the production and releasing of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. 

Up until this point the picture is pretty clear, but as soon as we get to where in the cycle we are now, and what we should be doing about it, the clarity dissolves. 

My friend Robert Aglow won an Emmy for producing a documentary on climate change for ABC news some 12 years ago.  He has been avidly following the topic ever since.  In a recent email he gave me his “dispassionate” take in on where the science stands now,

“There is no way to determine if we are at a tipping point, or tipping points because the best scientists in the world can’t predict exactly how or when the various positive feedback scenarios (they call them positive feedback which is misleading, of course, since they have very negative effects) they are beginning to concentrate on will play out. “

So if this is the case what do we do?  Here’s Aglow again.

“So to your question of whether we build dykes and floating cities and the rest or come up with real alternative fuel sources and sustainable living models, the answer is that both are necessary simultaneously.”

In my view it is not so much a matter of what to do about the problem as how to look at the problem.  When we dedicate time and treasure to sustainability we are not buying sustainability in the sense that when we buy a car we get a car.  Way before the carbon neutrality bandwagon, money and time spent on sustainability was an investment, not a purchase.  And investment intrinsically means risk.  Invest in eliminating DDT maybe we get non-toxic produce and mother’s milk; maybe we get 800,000 deaths from malaria.  In this case we got both. 

Since we are talking about investing, the golden rules about investing apply: Above all, diversify among high risk/high return and tried and true initiatives.  Beware of bubbles and bandwagons.

If everybody bets on the same thing you get a bubble.  The great offset fever that we are witnessing at the moment with everybody racing to be the first or the biggest carbon neutral this or carbon neutral that is the sustainability equivalent of the .com bubble of the nineties and the housing bubble that is in the process of bursting at the moment.  Bubbles always burst.

Above all diversify.  The most aggressive sustainability investors will want to make massive investments in carbon neutrality.  At the same time it is still worthwhile and vital to continue to protect wildlife and wildlands—biodiversity will always be important whatever happens with the climate.  For some investing to protect an important work of art or architecture will still be the right answer.  We can’t be expected to do a good job with nature if we neglect the great works of man.  Finally by all means helping local communities support themselves and become self-sufficient is still the lynch pin of sustainability in the developing world—and often the weak link.  If the dire predictions of climate change play out as many of us fear, local communities will be more vulnerable than ever.

In short (and in my personal opinion) anything but offsets.

Of course if you would have bought indulgences in the middle ages, buy offsets now.  The offset brokers gotta live too—and it just might get you some good press—for a while.


Since I first wrote this, I have become increasingly aware of something more troubling then the dubious science and social policy.  That is a concerted effort to stifle dissent with a zeal worthy of the Bush administration.  Responsible critics of offsets like Bjorn Lomborg the Danish environmentalist are vilified. I am not sure whether this intolerance of dissent is due the amount of money there is to be made with offsets or political correctness.  I suspect both.  Several people have told me in private that they agree with my views on offsets, but would not say so in public.  I asked one of them why not and he told me that he lived in Berkley.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *