Do Carbon Offsets Really Help?

By Erich Schwartz, GreenStep Solutions

Pandemic restrictions are almost gone, summer has returned to the northern hemisphere, and tourism businesses are bracing for, yet looking forward to, the beginning of the long recovery.

But there’s a catch. As we look to get back to “normal”, the Canadian government has released its 2030 Emission Reduction Plan plan to reduce Canada’s emissions by 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2050. With fossil fuels still playing a significant role in the tourism sector, how can we recover, while also meeting these new targets to tackle climate change? One option is to voluntarily buy carbon offsets, which sets the stage for repeating history.

Let’s flashback to Medieval Europe, when people could “offset” their sins by purchasing indulgences. Carbon offsets are not that different, enabling tourism destinations and businesses to pay for their negative environmental impacts by helping to fund emissions reductions elsewhere, for example, by planting trees in Africa or capturing methane (a potent greenhouse gas) at a landfill in British Columbia. In this way, the emissions of the purchaser are effectively neutralized, hence the term “carbon neutral.” 

However, not all offset projects are created equal, which begs the question, are the carbon offsets you are considering legitimate contributions to the public good by reducing your carbon footprint, or simply being used to line someone’s pocket? Buying carbon offsets is a “click” away, relatively inexpensive, and allows us to feel like we are doing our part. Some options claim they are planting trees or protecting trees from being cut down, some are for switching to renewable energy, and so on. But it is not that easy. 

In my own experience to offset my personal carbon footprint, I contributed to a project in Czechia to transition brownfields into fruit-bearing orchards, which would both absorb carbon dioxide and provide food at local markets. As I monitored their efforts, many of the trees I paid to be planted were damaged or destroyed by disease, drought, or meandering animals. To achieve carbon neutrality I had to keep purchasing more trees to replace the ones that didn’t survive. I eventually felt that I had effectively offset my emissions, but only through due diligence. I concluded the best solution was to stop causing the emissions in the first place and to purchase offsets that can be verified. 

In this way, verified carbon offsets and reduction projects can play a key role as we decarbonize the tourism industry. Look for Gold Standard Certified carbon offsets, or verified tree planting projects, such as those offered by Veritree, which support restorative efforts in communities around the world.  

Ultimately the decision to purchase offsets is a business decision, but it should be a part of a larger carbon reduction strategy. When considering how to reduce the carbon footprint of your business or destination, there are several steps that you should take first. 

Decarbonization Steps 

  1. Measure your carbon footprint based on an internationally recognized and credible methodology, such as the Greenhouse Gas Protocol
  2. Once you have measured your carbon footprint, develop a carbon reduction target that is science-based. For most organizations, that means reducing your carbon footprint by 50% by 2030, and 90% to 95% by 2050.
  3. With your target in mind, develop an emissions reduction or decarbonization plan by identifying the actions that you will need to take in the short, medium and long term to achieve your goals. Hint – many of the low-hanging fruit opportunities can also cut costs! 
  4. Implement your action plan, and measure your progress along the way. For those emissions that you can’t reduce in the short term, this is where you can purchase carbon offsets to achieve carbon neutrality while you work on making real reductions in your carbon footprint. 
  5. Celebrate and repeat. Don’t forget to share and celebrate your goals and achievements along the way internally and through your social channels. Apply for awards, seek certification, and consider signing on to Tourism Declares or the Glasgow Declaration to join the international community of tourism industry leaders making commitments to measure and reduce their carbon footprint. 

If you would like some help along the way, GreenStep offers affordable DIY carbon software and carbon measurement support services specifically catered to tourism businesses and destinations. We also provide training workshops and bulk discounts on our software for larger organizations. Book a free consult today to learn more about how to get started on your carbon reduction journey. 

Erich Schwartz is the Sustainability & Climate Solutions Sales Manager for GreenStep Solutions. Through their Sustainable Tourism division, GreenStep works with tourism businesses and destinations across Canada and globally to help them measure, improve and certify their sustainability performance.