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Carbon emission offsets have been proposed to help compensate for our consumption. But do they really help?Photo: Jonne Renvall, Tampereen yliopisto

Can a tiny plaster help heal a gaping wound?

Carbon emission offsets have been proposed to help compensate for air travel and other consumption. However, there are fears that a cheaply bought good conscience will put a stop to more difficult but necessary corrective actions.
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5 min
Published:
21.10.2019

“Contradictory” is the word Tampere University’s researchers Anna Heikkinen, Nina V. Nygren and Hannele Mäkelä use to describe their stance on offsetting emissions.

Recently, travel agencies have begun to promote pre-compensated airline and hotel packages. In the spring of 2019, the Compensate service, launched by former MP Antero Vartia, made headlines in Finland. By using the service, consumers can offset their carbon footprint either while shopping or in monthly installments. For some time, airlines have offered passengers the opportunity to pay additional compensation when they purchase tickets.

Is paying these sums akin to buying a good conscience – comparable to the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences – or do such offsets really help to mitigate climate change?

Money talks

According to the researchers, at the very least, offsets simplify a complex and tricky issue.

“The good thing about offsets is that emissions are considered and discussed. However, one of the things I have a problem with is the way airlines place the impetus on consumers. It is also questionable that non- monetary issues, such as pollution, are given a monetary value,” Mäkelä says.

On the other hand, money usually talks in society.

“Decisions are often made based on the economy. Putting a monetary value on things helps make them noteworthy,” Mäkelä adds.

The sums paid should correspond to the actual damage, which is hard to identify and put a price on. For example, similarities could be sought in emissions trading between companies, and a model could then be applied to air travel and other purchases. Nevertheless, the artificially low price of aviation fuel should be raised before that happens.

Kerosene is currently tax-free because 52 states agreed on a tax exemption at the Chicago Convention of 1944. However, according to a report completed earlier this year, the EU could impose a fuel tax on air traffic both within and outside the Union. According to the researchers, this would be a good first step to curb flight emissions.

“It is not fair that consumers offset emissions that are not included in the airlines’ cost structure. It distorts the situation,” Mäkelä says.

Recently, travel agencies have begun to promote pre-compensated airline and hotel packages.Photo: Brian Kairuz, Unsplash

What is done with the money?

In addition to the consumers’ responsibility, the researchers are concerned about what is done with the compensation money. According to Nygren, small payments are not necessarily a problem, because even tiny amounts of money can still achieve things.

“Besides, high costs would probably lead to no one being willing to pay," Nygren points out.

However, there is the problem that compensation payments are rarely directed to the immediate repair of damage, but rather to future technologies that it is hoped will reduce emissions in the future.

“The question arises whether, for example, supporting solar panels in India is the right destination for the compensation. Should we rather establish and protect carbon sinks and carbon reserves?” Nygren asks.

Good first step

According to the researchers, offsetting is a good step towards controlling emissions if it is jointly decided that this is the first step towards more determined action. However, there is a risk that the compensation system will be used as an easy solution and other measures are deemed unnecessary. This may encourage people to sit back and wait for technological innovations to allow carbon capture from the atmosphere sometime in the future.

“Do people think that this is actually the way to scrape by for the moment and postpone more radical actions?” Heikkinen ponders.

Even worse, if it is perceived that simply paying a few euros undoes one’s environmental damage, it may encourage more emission-producing actions.

“At worst, easy compensations may increase harmful behaviour and emissions. When this happens, people do not take the time to think about the root causes of their actions or seek alternatives,” Heikkinen says.

Instead of offsets, a wider awareness of the total impact of one’s choices is needed.

If you want to travel and cut your carbon emissions, you may want to travel by train instead of flying.Photo: JESHOOTS, Unsplash

No need to feel guilty

It is often argued that radical climate actions would hamper economic growth and employment. Falling living standards and various social problems are presented as a menacing vision. Heikkinen, Nygren and Mäkelä do not take such threats at face value.

“What do ‘falling living standards’ mean? Do they inevitably mean a decline in well-being, or are living standards and well-being different things?” Heikkinen asks.

According to Heikkinen, it is a question of choice as to what kinds of threats are presented and what tone is used when talking about the required changes. It is also a choice that the current societal system and present lifestyles are seen as the only right ones and that changing them would mean a step backwards.

“We already know that our current system is broken climate-wise. However, it still seems that in an attempt to fix the problem, some sort of turbo version of the current system is applied,” Heikkinen says.

It is obviously difficult to internalise the need for change at the societal level, but neither is it easy at the individual level. Talking about reducing one’s carbon footprint is often taken as an attack on others’ choices. The debate about the need for change easily turns into a blame game. That is unnecessary, say the researchers.

“People do not have to feel guilty, but it would be a good idea to be aware of the consequences of one’s actions,” Heikkinen says.

Better than nothing

The researchers are also battling with their own carbon footprints. A researcher’s job involves frequent travel to conferences and meetings organised in different parts of the world. At least, that is what is imagined.

“We should be more critical about travelling. Conferences could also be organised virtually. In addition, those who fund research could support overland travel,” Nygren says.

For example, the Kone Foundation already awards grants for slow travel. Employers and organisations’ travel systems could also steer business travel in a more ecological direction.

“For instance, searching for train-boat routes should be as easy as booking flights. In addition, each employee could have an emissions budget, which would make people more aware of their travel choices,” Heikkinen proposes.

Similar steering would also be required on a societal level.

“The message should be: do not offset emissions, travel by train,” Heikkinen says.

While waiting for that message, the researchers say that offsetting emissions is a small plaster on a gaping wound, but it is perhaps better than nothing.

“Maybe it is necessary at this point until we are ready for the entire system to change,” Heikkinen says.

Experts:

  • University Lecturer in business management Anna Heikkinen studies, eg responsible business and sustainable development.
  • University Lecturer in environmental policy Nina V. Nygren is currently a leader of a project that is developing a board game on biodiversity offsetting.
  • Senior Research Fellow Hannele Mäkelä researches the social responsibility of businesses and accounting.