Carbon Offsets for Events: Buyer Beware

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carbon offsetsCarbon offsets have been one way event organizers have tried to mitigate one of the more difficult-to-solve sustainability sticking points for in-person events — air travel. But choosing the right one can be tricky.

Carbon offsets — where an individual attendee or the meeting organizer pays for something sustainable to help compensate for the emissions caused by the meeting — sound like a great way to check the sustainability box when you’ve exhausted all the other options you can feasibly accomplish. This is especially true for air travel, which despite the airline industry’s work to reduce carbon emissions through Sustainable Aviation Fuel and other mitigation tactics, still leaves a hefty carbon footprint. For example, a typical U.S. cross-country flight emits 2,145 pounds of CO2.

And they have gotten popular in recent years as more meeting organizers, hotels and convention centers take the carbon offset route to eco-pay for attendee air travel by funding tree planting, wind farms, cleaner-burning cookstoves in developing countries and other eco-friendly practices. If it’s good enough for everyone from Amazon to Elton John to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, it’s good enough for your event, right?

Well, maybe. As with everything else involved in meeting and event planning, it’s a bit more complicated than it seems at first glance. For example, what if the tree-planting program you invest in with carbon offset credits is in an area that’s prone to wildfires? Those trees won’t end up doing much good if they get burned to a crisp shortly after planting — and in fact, the carbon released in a wildfire could have the opposite effect of what you want. Would that wind farm be built regardless of your contributing carbon offset funding? If so, it may not actually be making that big of a difference overall. Is your carbon offset exclusive to you? And then there are the scams, such as a rainforest preservation project in Peru that sounded great until a Wall Street Journal investigation found that only a small amount of money designated for the project actually reached locals, while the rest went to traders, registries, raters, governments and investors.

Also, you may want to ensure that the carbon offset program you pick will benefit the local community in which you are meeting, rather than in another part of the world. Or you may want to find one that benefits a part of the developing world, which are already feeling much of the impact of climate change more deeply than in more-developed countries such as the U.S. Carbon offset credits, like pretty much everything else these days, also are costing more as they move more into the mainstream. Some planners roll the fee into the general registration fees, while others may keep it as a separate fee, either voluntary or mandatory.

But that doesn’t mean the idea is without merit. It just means that you have to do your homework to ensure that your carbon offset actually does offset the carbon generated by travel to the meeting.

How to Make an Informed Carbon Offset Choice

Work is underway now to create a cohesive and comprehensive set of carbon offset standards to help ensure these credits actually go where they’re supposed to go and do what they’re supposed to do. In the meantime, one way to do your carbon offset due diligence is to choose a program from a reputable registry, each of which have their own project types and approved methodologies. CarbonBetter, which also offers its own Certified Offset Portfolios, says the major registries include:

But First, Try to Minimize the Environmental Impact

The most important piece of the reduce, reuse and recycle mantra always has been “reduce,” so before looking into purchasing carbon offset credits, it makes sense to first try to reduce the amount of carbon emissions your event produces in the first place. This can mean ensuring your venue also is focusing on sustainability and waste reduction, as well as taking steps such as eliminating printed materials, incorporating more plant-based meals and using water stations and refillable bottles instead of individually bottled water.

But that doesn’t help much with the air travel piece. Instead of purchasing carbon offset credits, attendees and planners can take what the Consumer Energy Alliance calls the NOEL approach:

  • Newest aircraft: Try to book on the newest aircraft you can find, since these tend to be more energy-efficient.
  • One way: Try to book a non-stop flight, since almost a quarter of fuel is spent during takeoffs and landings.
  • Economy: First class is wonderful in many ways, but those cushy big seats mean each first-class passenger accounts for a larger per-person percentage of the flight’s carbon emissions.
  • Light luggage: The lighter your bag, the less fuel it takes to get it to your destination.

Here are some resources to find more information on carbon offsets:

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