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What is carbon offsetting? How to make your holiday kinder to the environment

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Lauren Geall
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Jetting off on holiday but worried about the environmental impact? Offsetting could be the answer you’re looking for. 

As you read this article, teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg is somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, making her way to America to take part in the UN’s Climate Action Summit in New York and COP25 in Santiago, Chile. The UN conference doesn’t start until the 23 September, but Thunberg has a legitimate reason for leaving so early: she’s making the two-week trip by boat, in order to avoid the CO2 emissions created by flying.

Greta Thunberg isn’t the only one concerned about the impact of flying on the environment – in fact, there’s growing awareness about the massive amounts of carbon emitted by jetting off on our holidays. And while we don’t all have access to a solar-powered yacht to get us across the world, there is one step we can all take to minimise the impact of our travels on the environment: carbon offsetting. 

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Carbon offsetting schemes allow individuals to pay money to environmental projects which effectively balance out their carbon footprints. While carbon offsetting can be used for a number of reasons, the most common way carbon offsetting is used is to reduce the impact of flying, especially because we now know how much CO2 is produced every time we take off.

And this week, the practice hit the headlines after Sir Elton John spoke out about using Carbon Footprint (a carbon offsetting organisation) to adjust the impact of Harry and Meghan’s recent flight on his private jet.

Responding to criticism the couple had received from the public and media organisations, the singer took to his Instagram to defend the pair, adding that him and his husband had made an “appropriate contribution” to ensure the flight was carbon neutral. 

Person planting a tree for the climate
Carbon Offsetting: Reduce the damage your holiday is doing to the environment by funding schemes which plant trees across the UK.

Carbon offsetting may sound like an appealing concept, but if you’ve never heard of it before, or want to know which way to go about it, it can be quite confusing to navigate the multiple schemes on offer and understand what actually happens when you pay to have your emissions offset.

Carbon Footprint – the organisation Sir Elton John used – allows you to calculate and measure your carbon footprint and then offset your carbon emissions via a number of different carbon reducing projects.

Let’s take a return trip from London to Santorini, for example. It’s a pretty standard holiday trip, which takes just under four hours each way – but it also produces 0.83 tonnes of CO2. That’s equivalent to the CO2 emissions produced by charging over 96,000 smartphones.

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So, what can you do about it? Carbon Footprint offers a number of carbon offset options from a variety of different projects – and for a variety of different prices. For £12.90, for example, you can pay to have trees planted in a UK region of your choice, or for £9.50, you can support a reforestation project in Kenya.

Other carbon offset organisations allow you to donate to projects which provide efficient cooking stoves to women in Kenya, or offset your emissions by helping small farms in Nicaragua with reforestation. 

However, carbon offsetting does not fix the problem. In fact, it’s more of a plaster for the time being: the UN Environment programme supports carbon offsets as a “temporary measure” until 2030, and stresses that we must continue to transition away from carbon as much as possible, by “embracing renewable energy, eating less meat and wasting less food”.

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Carbon offsetting might not be an answer to all the world’s problems, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction. Especially for those of us who find themselves feeling bouts of eco-anxiety, contributing in some way to the reduction of carbon around the world can help us to feel a lot more optimistic about our future.

It’s a long and difficult debate, but every step counts.

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Lauren Geall

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