Can CO2 compensations do more harm than good?

The holiday season is around the corner and it looks like the Covid-19 crisis isn’t thwarting peoples travel plans after all. But besides the especially tricky decision vacationers face particularly this year whether to fly, take the train, bus or travel by car to its aspired destination, the general question arises in the context of ecological consequences every time we decide to leave our home destination. Flying poses a special problem for the climate because of its high emissions. Since 1990 the number of flights constantly increased. The number of passengers in German air traffic rose by 4, 1% only in the last year (Statistischs Bundesamt 2020). Economist Matthew J Kotchen describes in the article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review from 2009 nicely how air travel companies understand the zeitgeist and adjusted the marketing to more environmentally conscious customers. His encounter with this type of offer reads like this: “Effectively offset the negative environmental impact of your entire trip. Go without guilt—Go Zero! […] For an additional $3. 42” (Kotchen 2009: 26). What this refers to is the concept of Carbon Offsetting or CO2 compensation.

What is Carbon Offsetting?

In a nutshell, the idea behind Carbon Offsetting is to counteract the CO2 emissions created in one place through activities that reduce emissions in another place. Providers like the German NGO “Atmosfair” calculate how much greenhouse gases the purchased flight will emit and how much it would cost to compensate for it. The amount than can be donated directly to finance climate projects designed to avoid emissions or to bind greenhouse gases from the atmosphere: Primarily tree planting programs, forest conservation programs and energy efficiency programs.

The number of people who donate money to offset carbon emissions is growing. In 2019 the revenue of the climate protection organization Atmosfair doubled compared to 2018. The website states that the organization invested 15 Million Euro into climate projects in 2019 (Website Atmosfair 2020). But to put the numbers in perspective, in absolute figures, Atmosfairs contribution only compensate for less than one percent of all flights from Germany. Studies show that voluntary emissions reductions must be increased by at least a factor of 400 in order to become relevant to even achieve a 10% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (Gössling et. al 2007).

But even so the impact of Carbon Offsetting currently is very small the question in regards to further development remains: Is this a sensible way to mitigate the ecological consequences of air travel?

Compensation creates awareness

The argument for Carbon Offsetting schemes in the sense of trying to yield behavioral change lies in the awareness they can create for the problematic impact of air travel on the climate. Awareness, the recognition of the problem, is necessary for behavioral change. But only when people also develop intentions based on their ability to act, behavioral change can take place. The study from Halady and Rao (2010) showed that rising awareness to the climate change problematic lead to a significant behavioral change amongst managers. That’s the effect that can be hoped for; the empirical evidence however is very limited for the effect of Carbon Offsetting schemes.

Beyond the possibility of raising awareness the Behavioral Economic concept of “nudging” might help to create a more responsible consumer choice. The fact that the Carbon offset heavily marked and also framed as the “right” and “responsible” decision with no or less additional effort but a great output personally [no guilt] and on the environment the subconscious part of our brain decides in the most cases for this option without further thinking. The nudging concept tries to bring us to decide in behave of the “better” choice without telling us what to do directly (Thaler, Sunstein 2009).

Counterargumentdangerous distraction

There are also a lot of arguments against Carbon Offsetting. Critics fear that by allowing consumers to buy their way out of their ecological guilt, the Carbon Offsetting market may actually lead people to emit even more emissions. The example of the flight purchase showed, companies encourage people to buy the next “guilt-free” flight. Observers compare it with modern indulgence trading because the compensation marked gives consumers a way out: Pay for the sin of emission but still be able to keep polluting like you wouldn’t be aware of it.

Offsets distract from the real problem of necessary reductions: Offsets can prevent consumers from reducing the number of their flights because they are convinced they traveling climate neutral when there is actually no net benefit for the planet: For example offset programmers would might happened regardless or the newly plant trees as carbon storages are only plant for a set period of time and cut eventually again.

Another argument in this context is the problem of shifting the own moral responsibility to reduce to someone else: The concept contains of paying other people to cut emissions instead of making the behavioral change itself. Additionally scientists refer to it as an obstacle of the global aviation to develop sustainable technical alternatives (Scott et. al 2010).

To come back to the initial question: Might CO2 Compensations do more harm than good? The answer depends on the motive: If you want to mitigate the ecological consequences of your already booked flight? Yes, than buying a carbon off set is better than doing nothing and the compensating market may promote greater environmental awareness. But in the long run this scheme is not enough to create actual behavior change. If a large share of the society buys into the idea that is it possible to fly “guilt free” as much as we want, as long as we pay in monetary terms for it, the representation of offset markets as actors that rise awareness should be considered very questionable and the chance for real behavior change is not in sight.

Halady, I.R. and Rao, P.H. (2010), “Does awareness to climate change lead to behavioral change?”, International Journal of Climate Change Strategies and Management, Vol. 2 No. 1, pp. 6-22.

Stefan Gössling , John Broderick , Paul Upham , Jean-Paul Ceron , GhislainDubois , Paul Peeters & Wolfgang Strasdas (2007) Voluntary Carbon Offsetting Schemes forAviation: Efficiency, Credibility and Sustainable Tourism, Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 15:3,223-248,

Daniel Scott , Paul Peeters & Stefan Gössling (2010) Can tourism deliver its“aspirational” greenhouse gas emission reduction targets?, Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 18:3,393-408,

Kotchen, J. Matthew (2009): Offsetting Green Guilt. Do voluntary carbon offsets help counteract greenhouse gases, or are they just a way for guilt-ridden consumers to buy their way out of bad feelings? In: Stanford Social Innovation Review, Spring 2009, Volumme 7, Number 2.

Thaler, Richard H, Sunstein Cass R (2009): Nudging: Improving Decitions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Penguin Books, New York

Website Atmosfair: https://www.atmosfair.de/de/ueber_uns/jahresberichte/

Statistisches Bundesamt https://www.destatis.de/DE/Presse/Pressemitteilungen/2019/03/PD19_081_464.html

Picture source: freely-usable images from unsplash

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