Flight Guilt and Carbon Offsets

What is the upside of being both a travel enthusiast and a minimum wage-earning post-grad, you may ask? Well, thanks to your insufficient funds, you are able to escape the ethical dilemma of knowing that your air travel will result in significant carbon emissions and deciding to fly anyway. This is how I have been able to exude wanderlust all day long for the past year while avoiding actually thinking about the environmental impact of traveling abroad. Imaginary trips to Russia are totally carbon-neutral!

However, I have recently been given the crazy generous gift of a year of free stand-by air travel from an uncle who works for United. Upon hearing that I had moved home and was hoarding my meager income for a  long-term European travel spree, he chose to forego his annual block of buddy passes (each of which let a friend or family member fly United at a discount) in order to give one person, me, the privilege of free flights anywhere that United flies. Now not only do I not have to worry anymore about my passage to Europe, the tempting possibility of taking a few domestic weekend trips in the U.S. before I depart on the big one has arisen. I feel like I can’t say no to this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. When else will I be young, have such a flexible work schedule, and be able to fly for free? I feel like I owe myself this journey of self-discovery and adventure. But at what cost to the environment?

Traveling 1,000 miles in a plane emits 970 pounds of CO2 per passenger compared with 450 pounds for inter-city train and just 260 pounds for mass transit, according to Live Earth.

That’s not great. Let’s be honest, even idealistic young environmentalists often end up making selfish choices that we have to live with. So I’ve made my choice – I’m seeing the world. But that doesn’t mean I can’t do anything to offset my impact at least a little bit. I’ve always kind of viewed carbon offsets as abstract bullshit entities that people threw money at to make themselves feel better while continuing to burn resources as they always have. However, with a little research, I’ve found credible carbon offset programs that, while not erasing the damage you’ve done, do directly contribute to furthering alternative energy projects.

In my opinion, the two best options for offsets are those that fund future clean energy projects (money from these offset programs goes towards building clean energy projects such as wind farms and solar plants) or sustainable development projects (offsets fund eco-friendly and energy-efficient construction, often in developing countries). One offset company specializing in such projects is Less, which earned the highest ranking in the David Suzuki Foundation’s report critically analyzing offset companies.


Basically, it is up to the customer to do their homework and to think critically when choosing an offset. Make sure you are aware what exactly you will be funding, how transparent the company’s practices are, and whether or not your money will actually be making a difference in reducing or preventing future output. The David Suzuki Foundation reminds consumers that “good offsets are ‘additional’; that is, they result in greenhouse gas reductions that wouldn’t have otherwise occurred without the incentive of carbon offsets.” The foundation’s very helpful report ranking companies on these sorts of criteria can be downloaded for free here.

Have you ever purchased a carbon offset? Any recommendations?


2 responses to “Flight Guilt and Carbon Offsets

  1. Random question…where is the windmills photo at? Looks like I place where I grew up! On a more serious note – I struggle with the traveling thing and how it’s not environmentally friendly. I refuse (or at least used to before living in SE Asia :/ ) plastic water bottles, bags, etc., but then by a plan ticket literally halfway around the world. I don’t think I should feel guilty about this, but aware – and see how I can make changes/savings/etc. in other areas.

    Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself since I want to go more places… :/

    • I took the photo with windmills on a field trip in Western Washington I believe, but I can’t remember where exactly. Yeah, I feel like I can’t stop myself from traveling (or that I necessarily should stop), but being aware is important. At least that way you can try to travel consciously (supporting local businesses and what not) and minimize your impact.

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