Can We Offset Our Carbon Guilt?

With increasing numbers of us concerned about the impact our lifestyles are having on the environment, a new breed of subscription services offer a monetary method of offsetting your footprint, with monthly subscriptions paying towards carbon-capturing projects. Elizabeth Bennett explores both the positive and negative of such schemes, asking whether they really are helping the planet or simply helping to reduce our guilt. 

I’m scrolling through Facebook when I spot a friend’s post claiming he’s gone carbon neutral.  It’s a phrase we’re seeing businesses use more and more as environmental credentials gain klout, but this was the first time I’d seen the statement from an individual. After all, living in a country like the UK, was achieving carbon neutrality even possible?

It transpired that the friend in question was paying into a carbon offsetting program on a monthly basis. I was naturally sceptical, could you really balance the carbon books for the price of a Netflix subscription? It turns out you can.

Elliot Coad, co-founder of carbon offsetting subscription service, Ecologi, came to the issue as an “armchair environmentalist.” “I realised how hard it was to cut my own carbon footprint and started looking into directly funding climate solutions out there. There are a lot of positive outcomes that can come from giving a little money due to the efficacy of these climate projects,” he explained.

Customers who sign up to Ecologi can choose one of three monthly payment plans based on their lifestyle (Helper for £4.50, Booster for £9 and Mega for £18) and Ecologi distributes their money to carbon-positive projects around the world. Carbon offsetting doesn’t always get the best rep (see this Eco Age article for more info), but Ecologi operates with complete transparency (88.5% of your money goes directly to the projects) and only works with Gold Standard projects (WWF’s certifying body). Coad believes the subscription model has huge potential: “With today’s prices, if we grew to the size of Spotify we could avoid around 8-9 % of greenhouse gas emissions,” he added.

Another company offering a similar service is Go Climate – a non-profit organisation working with 100% transparency investing in certified projects. “Currently, the focus is mainly on supporting certified projects in countries very reliant on fossil fuels and financing projects focused on renewable energy instead. We also work with projects that help the local community. For example, a project in India that is also supporting teaching women to read, as well as supplying clean drinking water for the community,” Go Climate’s Tove Westling explained.

The staff of six even work six hour days so they can make more sustainable lifestyle choices (we all know a green lifestyle can be time consuming). “We want to inspire people, not frighten them. So many of us are in a privileged position to do something and we want people to believe that if they come together, they can make a difference,” Westling said. Considering supporting climate projects is cheaper than you might think, it’s an accessible option for lots of us. As Westling noted: “For people living in the global north, the monthly cost is a lot less than you might think but it makes a huge difference.”

Treedom, a B-Corp certified organisation founded in Florence 10 years ago (and an Eco Age partner), offers another style of subscription service for those looking to focus their carbon-offsetting efforts on trees. It has planted over 1.4 millions trees in 17 countries via 84,000 farmer partnerships, and you can buy trees on a monthly basis starting at €9.90 a month. Doing so would allow you to offset seven tonnes of CO2 in a year.

Tree planting can be a controversial carbon capture method as trees can be cut down and sometimes not planted ethically. However, Treedom takes due diligence with each tree geo captured and guaranteed to be around for at least 10 years. “We plant trees where they make the most difference to small holder farmers, planting in agroforestry systems where there’s a combination of species so the farmers get food security and can generate income. We also choose trees based on local biodiversity and what is going to bring the most environmental benefits,” Rebecca McNamara from Treedom told us.

While paying money into certified climate-positive projects will certainly help reduce your overall footprint, the question mark around whether you are buying your way out of a bigger issue still hangs over. For organisations like Ecologi, Go Climate and Treedom, customers are encouraged to see offsetting as part of an eco-friendly lifestyle. “We need to be pulling all the levers we can. Personal climate action is hug, but we also need to pull the offsetting lever too. Currently, we don’t have the time to completely carbon-free our lifestyle,” Coad said. “While we are working on bringing our carbon emissions down by changing our behaviours, we need to do something additional now,” Westling concurred.

At Ecologi, subscribers can set themselves their own individual carbon-reducing goals alongside their offsetting. For example, switching to an eco-friendly pension. They will then receive reminders from the platform to help keep them motivated and on track. Go Climate also offers a free service online that allows anyone to calculate their estimated carbon footprint and then receive personalised advice and tips on how to cut it down further.

Halting the climate crisis needs action from multiple angles. Personal changes – whether that’s eating less meat, reducing your flight time or switching your energy provider – is so important, as is pressuring governments and campaign work, but using reputable and certified carbon offsetting subscriptions is another powerful piece of the puzzle.