Carbon compensation – a feel-good solution?
Carbon offset schemes promise to compensate for the emissions caused by private individuals – as air travellers, for instance – with donations to climate projects. But are they not just a way of salving guilty consciences?
By Johannes Zeller
Climate change is a hot global topic. Protesters are challenging more than just governments to take action. Climate advocates want every single person to make a contribution because our current lifestyle – driving digitalisation and air travel – puts pressure on the environment. But does that mean we need to stop flying altogether?
A number of organisations offer an alternative: carbon compensation. Climate-aware travellers who feel the need or desire to take the occasional flight can at least compensate for the greenhouse gas emissions that their air travel causes. The principle is simple: they calculate the carbon emissions produced by a flight and then donate an appropriate sum of money to climate protection projects that reduce CO2emissions. The donations are then used to finance activities such as planting trees and building wind turbines. The environmental damage done by flying is thus cancelled out.
Carbon offsetting for travel
The non-governmental organisation (NGO) atmosfair operates Germany's largest carbon offset scheme in terms of annual donation volume. On its website, individuals and companies can calculate how much CO2will be emitted by an upcoming flight or cruise holiday and then make an appropriate financial donation. According to atmosfair, a flight from Berlin to New York, for example, generates more than 1.2 tonnes of CO₂ emissions per Economy-class passenger. The NGO suggests a € 30 offset for this, payable through the website and, if preferred, earmarked for a particular project.
In 2017, nearly € 6 million flowed in this way into hydropower projects in Honduras, efficient cookstoves in India, solar water purification systems in Egypt and other carbon mitigation projects.
atmosfair reckons that less than one percent of all flights booked in Germany are currently carbon-compensated. But more and more people are opting to offset their carbon footprint and a growing number of businesses are discovering the issue for themselves: from 2017 to 2018, the number of flights compensated through atmosfair rose by 50 %, while other offset schemes also reported rising demand.
Planting trees as gifts
On the Primaklima website, users can calculate their ecological footprint and donate a recommended sum to climate protection projects. They also have the option of gifting trees to other people. A tree can be planted in Saxony, for example, for € 5; one planted in Nicaragua costs € 3. Donees receive a certificate showing the location and number of trees growing and turning CO2 into oxygen in their name.
The search engine that plants trees
Ecosia is a carbon-positive search engine. Established in Berlin, the company uses the profits it makes from advertising and partner programmes to plant trees. According to its own figures, a new tree is planted for every 45 searches. Since 2009, this has resulted in the planting of nearly 60 million trees, mainly in South and Central America, Africa and Southeast Asia. Ecosia is now also available as an add on for Firefox and Chrome.
Flying with a clear conscience
The NGO atmosfair aims to compensate for the environmental damage done by air travel. On its website, individuals and businesses can calculate the carbon emissions due to flights they take and donate a recommended sum to climate projects. According to the NGO, nearly € 7 million was raised for climate protection in this way in 2017.
CO2 compensation for motorists
Planes are not the only form of transport damaging the environment, of course; other vehicles do it as well. So Vienna startup ReGreen goes one step further than carbon compensation for flights, extending it additionally to motorists. Its website features a calculator that determines emissions based on vehicle type and annual mileage. An economical petrol model that clocks up 10,000 kilometres a year is reckoned to emit 1.95 tonnes of carbon dioxide. A powerful diesel pumps out 3.10 tonnes. So far, the company claims to have compensated more than 18 million kilometres driven.
Do you know your ecological footprint?
The CO2 calculator developed by the German Environment Agency (UBA) and the initiative KlimAktiv enables anyone to calculate their personal carbon footprint. It then launches a carbon scenario based on the result. Good intentions for the future, like turning down home heating by one degree Celsius or switching to an environment-friendly vehicle, can be taken into account. Finally, the calculator visualises the effects of the personal climate plan over the next 30 years. How much does your lifestyle need to change to achieve the target of a 95 % reduction in greenhouse gases in Germany by 2050?
Carbon compensation as a Christian mission
Klima-Kollekte is the carbon offset fund of the Christian churches. It has been in operation since 2011, offering businesses and private individuals – of any faith – an opportunity to compensate for carbon emissions by donating to climate protection projects in developing countries. In the five years since the fund was established, 56,750 tonnes of CO2 has been offset.
Reforestation for online searches
There are also schemes offering carbon offsets for digitalisation – specifically Internet search activity. Electronic end-user devices such as smartphones, tablets and laptops are not the only things that consume power in the world of digital communication. The servers, networks and routers in the background are also power-guzzlers – and thus cause carbon emissions. In 2015, artist Joana Moll launched the project CO2GLE, which visualises the carbon emissions produced by visits to the Google.com website. According to her calculations, every search on Google causes around 10 grams of carbon dioxide to be released into the atmosphere.
The Berlin-based company Ecosia has developed a search engine with environmental ambitions. It uses its profits to plant trees where its founders think they are most desperately needed – i.e. predominantly around the Equator, where the largest rainforests are located. In the ten years since it was established, the social business has planted nearly 60 million trees. It claims every 45 new searches add another tree to the total.
Of course, newly planted trees do not bind large amounts of carbon dioxide straight away; the impact increases as they grow. Daniel Klein of Münster University's "Wald-Zentrum" has worked out that a single tree binds around 12.5 kg of carbon dioxide a year over an 80-year time-frame. According to Joana Moll's calculations, however, 45 searches cause less than half a kilo of CO2, which makes Ecosia not just a carbon-neutral but a carbon-positive project.
Compensation creates awareness
With a market share of just a fraction of one percent (Neue Züricher Zeitung puts it at 0.22 %), Ecosia is nowhere near toppling Google from the top spot. Nor is carbon compensation for flights a mass phenomenon. Critics argue anyway that humanity would do better to focus on reducing rather than offsetting its carbon footprint.
The offset scheme organisers basically agree with that view. "Compensation is only the third best option – after avoidance and reduction," atmosfair CEO Dietrich Brockhagen told Deutsche Welle. But compensation and forestation projects at least make us more aware of our personal ecological footprint. And they do have a mitigating impact. If Ecosia was used for as many searches as Google and continued planting trees at the same rate, the newly forested areas could soon bind 15 % of man-made greenhouse gases. That, at least, is what Ecosia reckons.