Carbon Offsets 101

by staff

With concerns about the Earth’s climate at an all-time high, many visitors are seeking to reduce the environmental impact of their travel. Although no solution is perfect, there are steps that travelers can take to shrink their ecological footprints.

Generally speaking, more carbon is emitted during takeoff and landing than during the cruising portion of a flight, so opting to fly direct is an eco-conscious choice. There are hundreds of direct daily flights to New York City’s three international airports. But travelers may want to do even more by purchasing carbon offsets. Here’s a quick guide to how offsets work and recommendations for some of the easiest, most effective initiatives and programs available.

Brooklyn Bridge Park. Photo: Julienne Schaer

Clean Energy ABCs

What exactly is carbon offsetting? At the most basic level, the purchase of a carbon offset funds the creation of the same amount of “clean” energy that was emitted into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels.

Most offsetting happens in the so-called compliance market, which involves government entities and large corporations, but there is an emerging secondary market wherein consumers can voluntarily purchase carbon credits to mitigate the effects of their activities.

Voluntary carbon offsets are largely unregulated, and different programs have different benchmarks for success. The more transparent an organization is about how offset money will be used, the better. That being said, not all projects are created equal. The David Suzuki Foundation suggests looking for permanent energy-generation projects, which not only neutralize the impact of the greenhouse gases emitted but also help disrupt dependency on these harmful pollutants.

Even the way offsets are calculated for a particular activity varies widely from program to program. The National Resource Defense Council encourages eco-conscious consumers to verify that offset programs are generating additional energy, rather than paying for green energy that would have been created regardless.

Prospect Park. Photo: Julienne Schaer

Ways to Give Back

Here are just a few organizations that offer carbon offsets.

Airline Partnerships
This guide to various airlines’ carbon-reduction partnerships and options for consumers is a valuable resource.

Offering precalculated offsets to cancel out certain human activities, including air travel, CarbonFund lets users choose to donate to one of several broad categories of environmental initiatives (although it’s not possible to earmark funds for an exact project). The site also features a carbon footprint calculator.

The Good Traveler
It’s easy for travelers to give back on the go through this four-year-old airport-based sustainability program. The organization lets consumers buy offsets for domestic and international flights and maintains a list of projects it supports.

The Nature Conservancy
For decades this nonprofit organization has worked to preserve the natural environment, making it a good choice for those who are looking to contribute to an established steward. Offsets are packaged based on the average impact per person, per year, but the site does offer a calculator that allows travelers to donate based on the impact of their air travel alone.