Carbon offset schemes may ease your conscience. But how do you know they aren't just smoke and mirrors? We explain how they work, compare 4 voluntary schemes, plus provide tips on how you can reduce your carbon footprint.
Last year, cycling historian and guidebook writer Jonathan Kennett organised the inaugural Tour Aotearoa. The tour had eager bike-packers from all over the world setting off from Cape Reinga with the aim of reaching Bluff inside 30 days.
The tour was a labour of love for Mr Kennett. He didn’t charge entry fees, instead requiring entrants to offset the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from their travel to and from the event.
UK entrants booking return flights to Auckland and transport in-country had to pay about $230 to Kiwi company Enviro-mark Solutions. By Enviro-mark’s calculations, the money compensated for more than 7000kg of greenhouse gas emissions per passenger spewed into the atmosphere during the 36,000km round trip.
Mr Kennett chose Enviro-mark because he rated the pedigree of its carbon offsets. It’s one of several companies offering consumers offsets. Air New Zealand and Jetstar also flog their own to passengers during online booking. But how can you be sure the money you spend on these schemes isn’t going up in smoke?
How it works
The idea behind carbon offsetting is to invest in projects that represent a sufficient reduction in emissions to balance out the activity you’re doing. For example, you could offset the 7 tonnes of greenhouse gases from an Auckland-London return flight by planting a forest big enough to vacuum up all those emissions.
Offsetting schemes aim to compensate for carbon dioxide (CO2) and other key greenhouse gases. Each offset, also referred to as a carbon credit, represents one tonne of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e).
Personal air travel has been a focus of carbon offset schemes. In addition to CO2, jet engines leave behind other emissions including water vapour from contrails, which add to the greenhouse effect via a process called “radiative forcing”. Some calculators use a radiative forcing multiplier to take this into account.
What on earth is an offset?
Projects that commonly serve as the basis for offsets include:
Forestry: Which removes CO2 from the atmosphere, serving as a carbon sink. Forestry is the basis for all carbon credits generated in New Zealand.
Renewable energy: From investing in power sources such as wind farms or solar PV in lieu of fossil fuel-fired stations.
Energy-efficiency projects: Aimed at reducing overall energy use and therefore carbon emissions. An example is distributing fuel-efficient stoves in developing countries.
Carbon offsetting has been dogged by criticism. There’s no government regulation of voluntary carbon offset schemes and there’s little stopping a company claiming to be selling offsets that don’t exist. It’s up to the schemes to choose how they verify the offsets they sell.
To be legitimate, the projects behind carbon offsets must be:
Permanent. The lifespan of some greenhouse gases is 100 years. If you purchase carbon offsets generated by a reforestation project, there’s a serious risk the land could be logged within the next century, so there’s a good chance you won’t fully balance your emissions.
Additional. If the project would have gone ahead without funding from carbon credits, then it’s bogus.
Sourcing credits from projects that have robust third-party certification is your best bet for ensuring you’re making a real dent in your carbon emissions.
Gold Standard certification is typically used for energy-efficiency and renewable energy projects. It’s regarded as a rigourous certification.
The Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) is the most widely used for certifying voluntary carbon offsetting projects. It’s a well-regarded standard, able to be used for forestry as well as renewable energy and energy-efficiency projects.
The ISO14064-2 standard provides guidelines for monitoring, reporting and verifying greenhouse gas emissions and offsets. It’s significantly less onerous than Gold Standard and VCS certification.
Some New Zealand schemes also sell offsets generated by the Permanent Forest Sink Initiative (PFSI), run by the Ministry for Primary Industries. The project promotes planting new permanent forests on private land. PFSI participants agree to covenant the forests in perpetuity, though they have the right to terminate the covenant after 50 years. Limited harvesting is also allowed.
Cutting your carbon
If you’re eager to shrink your overall carbon footprint, offsetting is far from your only option.
Reducing food wastage. A 2015 report by WasteMINZ found the average Kiwi household chucks out $563 worth of food annually. Stopping this food waste would have the same impact as avoiding 325,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions a year nationwide.
Eating less red meat and dairy. 49% of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture. Dr Nick Wilson, from the University of Otago’s department of public health, suggests one of the best ways of reducing your carbon footprint is shifting towards diets that use less red meat, or going vegetarian.
Shaking up your daily transport routine. Taking public transport, walking or cycling to work just 1 or 2 days every week can shrink your carbon footprint.
A 30km commute generates the following levels of CO2e emissions:
|Large car (2.5L and above)||9.2kg|
|Small car (less than 1.6L)||5.4kg|
|City bus (per passenger)||3.0kg|
Voluntary carbon offsetting schemes
We asked 4 voluntary carbon offsetting schemes for information on the projects backing their carbon credits and how these projects are verified.
We also calculated the cost of flying from Wellington-Auckland return according to each scheme’s calculator, both in terms of kilograms of emissions and dollar value.
Of the 4 schemes, Enviro-mark, Jetstar and Air New Zealand sell carbon credits eligible to be traded under schemes, such as New Zealand’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). The ETS requires certain industries to buy credits to compensate for their emissions. The exception is Ekos Rainforest Carbon Boutique, which focuses entirely on voluntary offsetting, selling credits based on its own projects and verified by third-party agencies.