Everything you need to know about carbon offsetting

Our sustainability editor delves into the complex world of carbon offsetting, where it can be hard to know exactly what you’re paying for...

3 mins

Reducing emissions is currently at the centre of the conversation surrounding sustainable travel – and rightly so. According to a 2018 report by the International Council on Clean Transportation, commercial aviation contributes to around 2.4% of global carbon dioxide emissions, while a study published in the journal Atmospheric Environment found it responsible for 3.5% of all drivers of global warming. This might sound small in comparison to the contributions of other industries; however, with only an estimated 11% of the world’s population flying, and far less flying regularly, the individual carbon footprint of a traveller is especially heavy.

According to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, if we continue on our current trajectory, we are likely to surpass the forewarned 1.5°C temperature rise above pre-industrial levels as early as the 2030s. This would have a severe environmental effect. So, should we be counteracting our travel emissions via offsetting?

How does carbon offsetting work?

Carbon offsetting aims to balance the production of emissions via a donation, usually to a global initiative endeavouring to capture and store carbon dioxide using forests, plants and peatland, or via renewable energy projects. The process involves calculating your emissions per journey, establishing an equivalent cost, then finding a reputable scheme that will donate the corresponding credit to an offset project.

Critically, what is emitted through air travel can’t be immediately removed from the atmosphere. For this reason, it is misleading to consider travel, once offset, to be ‘carbon neutral’. Effective offsetting schemes can absorb a similar volume of carbon dioxide at some time in the future.

Independent carbon calculators help you accurately add up your emissions so you can offset your trips (Shutterstock)

Independent carbon calculators help you accurately add up your emissions so you can offset your trips (Shutterstock)

Well-managed offsetting initiatives can play a vital part of a longer-term solution for carbon capture, integrating education and community empowerment. Therefore, it can be worth offsetting unavoidable emissions through an independent and reputable provider, such as the World Land Trust (WLT), which partners with and empowers local and Indigenous communities to protect existing forest environments. Closer to home, The Great Reserve cares for and responsibly plants giant sequoia forests around the UK.

Does it make a difference?

Unfortunately, the process comes with issues. The biggest of these is that travellers may become complacent and not attempt to actively reduce emissions. This lack of incentive could even encourage a growth in flight-related pollution: a recent report by The Travel Foundation predicts that emissions from long-haul trips could quadruple by 2050 without active change. Other issues include the mismanagement of offset schemes, which can lead to the displacement of Indigenous communities or the use of environmentally problematic non-native or monoculture plantations.

It’s also common to see initiatives offered by airlines when buying flights. While convenient, such schemes may not partner with reputable providers. Recently, it emerged in an investigation by the Guardian, Die Zeit and SourceMaterial that 90% of rainforest offset credits donated through the certifier Verra did not represent genuine carbon reductions. Choosing a provider with a proven track record is crucial (see further down page).

The Great Reserve protects and responsibly plants Giant Sequoia trees, the world's most powerful carbon capture tree (Shutterstock)

The Great Reserve protects and responsibly plants Giant Sequoia trees, the world's most powerful carbon capture tree (Shutterstock)

What else can be done?

The most efficient way to reduce an individual’s carbon footprint is to produce fewer emissions. However, this needn’t mean seeing less of the world. Instead, we can opt to take fewer long-haul trips but go for an extended period. Those who fly should keep in mind that take-offs and landings produce the most emissions, so direct flights are always preferable. Or perhaps we can reset our vision of what makes a great trip to incorporate slow travel, by train or ferry, wherever possible. The choice is in our hands.

How to calculate your carbon emissions

While an increasing amount of airlines, travel operators and even tourist boards offer carbon calculators on their websites, Wanderlust recommends an independent calculator such as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which considers information such as aircraft types, route-specific data, passenger load factors and cargo. This provides a more accurate calculation and leaves you free to find a reputable offsetting provider that does genuinely good work, either locally or internationally.

Reputable offsetting schemes

Some airlines offer offset credits when buying flights. Such schemes are run in partnership with various offset initiatives and may not be transparent or effective. Instead, Wanderlust recommends offsetting with reputable, independent providers, such as the following…

World Land Trust

Partnering with local and Indigenous communities, WLT’s ‘Carbon Balanced’ programme aids in the protection of existing forests around the world.


Non-profit Atmosfair opts to support climate protection projects that focus on renewable energies and environmental education.

The Great Reserve

Bolstering the UK’s forests, The Great Reserve responsibly plants and preserves giant sequoia trees – the world’s fastest-growing conifer – on home soil. 

Trees for Life

Established in 1981, this rewilding project replicates and grows native forests and wild bushland in South Australia through community engagement and education.

Positive news

Setting the standard
A new set of standards, published in May by the Integrity Council for the Voluntary Carbon Market (ICVCM), now asks carbon-credit certifiers to demonstrate how credits are used to genuinely reduce emissions. The move aims to help consumers identify legitimate offset schemes.

Overland to Berlin
Europe’s newest European Sleeper service means travellers can now go from London to Berlin in 16 hours by rail. Eurostar passengers can connect to the overnight service in Brussels, Belgium, and will reach Berlin early the following morning. europeansleeper.eu

Keeping the oceans clean
Diving association PADI is encouraging travellers to seek out dive ‘Eco Centres’, an accreditation it is awarding to outfits that can provide proof of ongoing, measurable conservation activity, from running citizen science initiatives and beach clean-ups to coral restoration.

Continue planning your next sustainable trip with the 2023 Wanderlust Green List

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