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Carbon offsetting

Green guilt or greener choice?


Carbon offsetting, or the purchasing of carbon offsets, aims to reduce the environmental impact of consumption and balance out a person or an organisation's carbon footprint.

A flight across the country, travelling with a 4x4 or a the manufacturing process of say, an industrialised factory, release different quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, so an individual or a company can choose to offset these emissions, perhaps by planting trees (which directly soak up CO2 from the air) or installing renewable energy technologies.


Indigenous forest at Kurisa Moya Nature Lodge

You can even purchase carbon 'credits' from an emissions trading scheme. Carbon offsetting projects are usually based in developing countries and are designed to reduce global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

GHG emissions mix quickly with the air and rapidly spread around the entire planet - which means it doesn't really matter where reductions take place, as long as fewer GHG emissions enter the atmosphere.

These days you'll find carbon-neutral production houses, bands like the Rolling Stones and Radiohead releasing carbon-neutral albums, people like us doing (probably a world-first!) a carbon-neutral scooter safari around Southern Africa, carbon-neutral printing companies and even carbon-neutral music festivals, weddings and exhibitions.

However, carbon neutrality (in an ideal world) must begin with reduction. It has to start with an effort to produce less waste and use more renewable energy. After reduction has reached its limit, carbon offsets make up the rest.

For example, the Rocking the Daisies Music Festival in South Africa uses bio-diesel generators (resulting in an 80% reduction of carbon emissions) supplies bathrooms with 100% biodegradable soaps (thus eliminating any harmful grey water), recycles trash and plants trees in surrounding townships (in partnership with Food & Trees for Africa) to make up any shortfalls.

On our carbon-neutral scooter safari, we chose to use petrol-sipping, long-lasting and rugged, Euro 2 compliant LML (old-school Vespa) scooters, plant trees wherever possible, do volunteer work at various projects and voluntary assessements for FTFA, and raise awareness about the environment and responsible travel.

Scootering to a Xhosa homestead

In doing this we also kept our own footprint low - either camping or staying at eco-friendly places that minimise their impact on the environment, buying local fresh fruit and vegetables and eschewing meat and dairy products, only using earth-friendly products, using our scooter's accumulated power to charge batteries etc - basically just keeping our footprint low, and offsetting any imbalance through planting trees and raising awareness and funds for FTFA (which enables them to plant more trees).

Why offset your carbon emissions?

There is convincing evidence that climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity.

Scientists agree that we need to reduce emissions by a staggering 80% by 2050 to prevent unprecedented negative impacts on our economy and climate.
Yet global greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow, including carbon dioxide from transportation (households, cars and flights) and ongoing deforestation (primarily for pasture land to meet a burgeoning demand for meat).

The longer it takes us to act, the worse the consequences for people and the natural world.

Unfortunately we cannot rely on governments and industry to act. They are representatives of the people, and as such, are forced to act when the public demands.

Each and every one of us must take responsibility for our own impact on the climate, and in so doing, force governments and industry to change. After all, our most powerful tool is what we choose to spend our money on.

What is a carbon credit?

A carbon credit is equal to the reduction of one tonne of CO2 equivalent emissions. What can be confusing is that there is no set price for carbon credits.

This may be because there are different ways of estimating the precise impact of certain types of activity -including flying, which can affect global temperature in various ways, and that different types of offset project have different costs -projects may be chosen not just for the CO2 impacts but for their broader social benefits.

There are two markets to deal with the trading of carbon credits, mandatory markets and voluntary markets.

Mandatory markets for carbon credits

Mandatory carbon reduction regimes such as the Kyoto Protocol and the European Union's Emissions Trading Scheme are the mandatory markets for carbon credits.

Here, governments and companies can purchase carbon credits in compliance with the caps on their carbon emissions set under the Kyoto Protocol. Mandatory carbon credits are traded through the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and other schemes.

Shockingly, no South African organisations are legally required to reduce their carbon emissions.

Voluntary markets for carbon credits

The voluntary market allows companies and individuals to trade carbon offsets on a voluntary basis. The voluntary market helps projects that are too small to be registered under mandatory schemes, or countries that do not have a Kyoto target, to achieve emissions reductions.

SAA, South Africa's national air service, for instance, registered a voluntary carbon offset programme in 2012, where passengers can pay R186 more for a return flight between Johannesburg and Cape Town or R518 more for a return trip to London, to offset the environmental damage caused by their trip. Food & Trees for Africa offers a similar programme.

However, one of the difficulties with the voluntary market is knowing whether or not the carbon emission reduction has actually taken place. Each standard has its own requirements that need to be met for a carbon project to be approved under that standard.

Thus many sellers either get their credits verified by a third party or subscribe to a voluntary standard (two of the best known are the Voluntary Carbon Standard (VCS), and the Gold Standard, among others. For more info on standards check out the Carbon Neutral Company.

FTFA banner

Types of carbon offsetting projects

1. Carbon sequestration through reforestation

One of the most popular ways to offset emissions is through the planting of trees. Deforestation is responsible for between 15 and 20% of global carbon emissions. Trees absorb or soak up CO2 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and sequester (or hold it) within their growing biomass (trunk, branches, leaves, roots).

However, this sequestered carbon stock is reliant on the forest or orchard remaining intact. Additionally, carbon sequestration projects using trees typically have a long time frame as trees only reach maturity after many years. The carbon offset of these projects also varies considerably: vegetative cover of the land prior to the project, species of trees, density of planting, the local climate and future potential local climate change.

2. Renewable Energy

Investment in renewable energy projects, such as wind energy, solar or hydropower, geothermal (which originates from the radioactive decay of minerals within the Earth's core and from solar energy absorbed at the planet's surface) all displace fossil fuels for energy production.

solar panels

3. Energy Efficiency

Investments in energy efficiency projects reduce the amount of energy required to deliver the same service and so result in reduced emissions from fossil fuels. These can include more efficient cookstoves (impoverished communities often cook with open fires - cutting down forests, contributing to poor health and poverty, as well as climate change).

This type of project involves subsidising the cost of fuel efficient cookstoves, reducing fuel requirements to prevent deforestation and save time and money for vulnerable communities.

Some of the world's poorest families spend up to six hours a day, and around 20% of their annual income on fuel for cooking and heating, while indoor smoke from biomass use causes over 1.3 million deaths a year (greater than that from malaria or tuberculosis).

4. Methane recovery

Methane is a greenhouse gas with a high global warming potential 21 times that of carbon dioxide. When methane is combusted it is converted into carbon dioxide, reducing its global warming potential.

Methane recovery projects include landfill gas to recovering methane from coal mines, biomass (biological matter from dead trees, yard clippings, left-over crops, wood chips, sawdust etc) animal manure or wastewater treatments.

5. Fuel switch

Another way that carbon emissions can be reduced is through projects that switch from one fuel source to another fuel that emits less carbon.

For instance waste material such as bagasse (sugar cane stalks) and rice husk by-products of existing agricultural processes, which if used for fuel, can improve energy sustainability, provide additional income to farmers and overcome disposal issues.

Switching to renewable sources of biomass not only prevents the release of CO2 from fossil fuels, it avoids the ecological damage associated with mining, drilling and transportation of these fuels.

Where can you buy African-based, poverty-alleviating carbon credits from in Southern Africa?

I've personally visited Food & Trees for Africa's carbon offsetting programmes throughout South Africa, from rural villages to bustling townships.

I've seen the incredible work this social enterprise is doing to create greener environments, uplift impoverished communities and help them become self-sufficient through permaculture methods. They also have a VCS accredited bamboo planting programme.

I cannot recommend them highly enough.

Credible Carbon encourages lifestyle and structural changes that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provides tangible advice on how to achieve this.

African based, Credible Carbon is focused on poverty alleviating emissions reduction projects - essential in combating global warming and integral to environmental justice.

Xhose kid fishes with homemade fishing rod

Is carbon offsetting a scam?

Perhaps the biggest condemnation from environmentalists come from the fact that voluntary offsets are often an excuse to overindulge and not feel guilty about it. Nobody puts that into perspective like British website Cheat Neutral (, which pokes fun at the concept of carbon-offsetting.

"When you cheat on your partner you add to the heartbreak, pain and jealousy in the atmosphere", the website explains. "Cheat Neutral offsets your cheating by funding someone else to be faithful and not cheat. This neutralises the pain and unhappy emotion and leaves you with a clear conscience".

Thought up in a pub, the site's founders wanted to use humour to demonstrate why (they believe) carbon offsetting is a moral travesty.

  1. Cheatneutral tries to make it seem acceptable to cheat on your partner. In the same way, carbon offsetting tries to make it acceptable to carry on emitting excess carbon.
  2. Cheatneutral doesn't really do much to reduce the amount of cheating in the world. Carbon offsetting does very little to reduce global carbon emissions.
  3. It seems impossible to measure how much harm cheating on someone does. With carbon offsetting, there is currently no practically feasible way of measuring how much carbon offset projects actually save.
  4. Having Cheatneutral's services available could actually encourage you to cheat more. If the carbon offsetters persuade you that it's possible to offset your emissions, you'll carry on emitting excess carbon through your lifestyle rather than think about reducing your emissions.
  5. Cheatneutral is fundamentally the wrong way to go about solving problems with your relationships. Carbon offsetting is fundamentally the wrong way to go about tackling climate change.

I refer to the Guardian's inconvenient truth of the carbon offsetting industry to sum up the problems with offsetting:

  • Schemes are unregulated and open to fraud:
    Even the most well-intentioned schemes suffer from a basic weakness: carbon offsetting stems from politicians and business executives trying to meet the demands for action while preserving the commercial status quo.
  • They require an accurate measure of emissions to be offset (which can differ wildly)
  • They require an accurate measure of carbon saved elsewhere: trees naturally ingest carbon - but it's not known exactly how much, while those that focus on energy efficiency can be even trickier. For example, a carbon offsetting company sold offsets from a South African project known as Basa Magogo. This encouraged poor households who traditionally made fires in perforated cans called imbawulas, to build the fire using coal at the bottom instead of paper, then wood with coal on top. Asks the Guardian: But how does anybody check how many have built their fires this way? And how many imbawulas must burn this way for how long before a tonne of carbon is saved?
  • Carbon offsetting relies on what is known as additionality - evidence that a carbon reduction would not have naturally occurred. One of the biggest UK offsetters, Climate Care, which is used by the Guardian, distributed 10,000 energy-efficient lightbulbs in a South African township; offered the carbon reductions as offsets; and then discovered that an energy company was distributing the same kind of lightbulbs free to masses of customers, including their township, so the reduction would have happened anyway.
  • Many companies sell speculative "forward" credits, linking up with some third-world project sand selling carbon offsets on the assumption that the project will 'probably' materialise and succeed.

Dan Welch, a Manchester journalist who investigated offsetters for Ethical Consumer magazine, summarised it neatly: "Offsets are an imaginary commodity created by deducting what you hope happens from what you guess would have happened."

There's tree-planting projects that have been accused of planting non-indigenous (alien) species, disrupting water supplies, evicting villagers from their land, running plantations where the soil releases more carbon that that absorbed by the trees and cheating local people of income, to name a few.

Says Kevin Anderson, Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester, UK: "Carbon offsetting, on all scales, weakens present-day drivers for change and reduces innovation towards a lower-carbon future.

It militates against market signals to improve low-carbon travel and video-conference technologies, while encouraging investment in capital-intensive airports and new aircraft, along with roads, ports and fossil-fuel power stations.

For a carbon offseting project to be genuinely low-carbon, it must guarantee that it does not stimulate further emissions over the subsequent century. Although standards and legislation around offsetting and the CDM sometimes consider 'carbon leakage' in the projects' early years, it is impossible to quantify with any meaningful level of certainty over the timeframes that matter.

To do so would presume powers of prediction that could have foreseen the Internet and low-cost airlines following from Marconi's 1901 telegraph and the Wright brothers' 1903 maiden flight.

Assume I broke my (self-imposed) seven-year refusal to fly, paid my offset and boarded a plane from Manchester to London for a conference. In doing so, I add to the already severe congestion at airports, causing delays and allowing politicians to argue for greater airport capacity, arguments only reinforced by the rise in passengers turning to offsets.

To meet increasing demand, airlines are encouraged to order new aircraft, which they promise will be more efficient. Feeling pressure, a future government approves new runways, but the extra flights and emissions swamp efficiency gains from the cleaner engines.

Meanwhile, in an Indian village where my offset money has helped to fund a wind turbine, the villagers now have the (low-carbon) electricity to watch television, which provides advertisers of a petrol-fuelled moped with more viewers, and customers.

A fuel depot follows, to meet the new demand, and encourages others to invest in old trucks to transport goods between villages. Within 30 years, the village and surroundings have new roads and many more petrol-fuelled mopeds, cars and trucks.

Meanwhile, the emissions from my original flight are still having a warming impact, and will do for another 100 years or so".

Advantages of carbon offsetting:

In the above I'm showing one side of the argument. There are those that argue that carbon offsetting has brought about greater awareness of climate change and global emissions.

A recent debate in the economist highlighted some of the advantages of carbon offsetting:

  • Reducing GHGs is expensive. Without setting a price for carbon, it is not the economically-optimal thing to do; otherwise people would be doing it without needing to be incentivised, regulated, or hectored. Greenhouse gas consequences of growth, particularly in developing countries, has yet to occur. Making that growth low-carbon, rather than retrofitting low-carbon solutions, is cheaper and just as effective.
  • The benefits of trade apply: Many developing countries have a comparative advantage in producing emissions reductions. It benefits their growth, as well as reducing developed-country costs, if it is their reductions that are bought.
  • Enormous efforts have gone into developing the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) national accounting protocols, the Kyoto project mechanisms and the verification schemes used by the various voluntary market certification schemes. In fact, many people now complain that the Kyoto controls are actually too strict and burdensome. While there is obviously much more that can be done to improve these systems (which have only operated for a few years) there is no more reason to say that foreign reductions are impossible to believe than there is to say that financial accounts of companies with foreign operations are inherently suspect. The press is always alert for scams, and more than one company has changed its offset systems to avoid any taint of suspicion.
  • It is important to limit the amount you emit rather than offset: if you believe that over time the cost of offsetting is going to go up, and that you are going to have to live in a changed environment where the net price of emissions will increase radically, rationally you should alter your assets and activities to avoid paying the higher costs. Far from undermining the effort to tackle climate change, offsetting makes the effort go further.
  • The damage to the environment will result in problems for people all round the earth, whether from sea level rise, increased storm intensities, or changes to rainfall patterns. On the whole everyone suffers, directly or indirectly. So everyone has an interest in contributing to GHG reduction.

Personally, I think it comes down to well-informed individual and corporate ethics and strategy.

For instance:

Consider the decision of whether to buy a hybrid car. Because of the expensive batteries and other complex equipment, they can cost more than standard vehicles. Many people drive so little that they wouldn't save enough on gasoline to recoup the higher cost.

Yet many such people buy hybrids anyway, because they think they are helping the environment. And I haven't got into the cost to the environment of producing that car, or of disposal of those batteries. So the intent is sound, but they could've helped the environment even more by keeping their existing car or buying a second-hand car, and using the savings to buy carbon offsets.

Another example is a business in a first-world country that is unable to reduce 100 tonnes of its CO2 emissions in the short term. There is a project in South Africa which could save 100 tonnes easily by switching to solar panels as an energy source, but they need a cash injection.

Through the purchase of carbon offsets, you provide the financial assistance to subsidise the cost of getting solar panels onto housing, and through that means you have enabled a saving of 100 tonnes of CO2. The first-world business has reduced global CO2 emissions by 100 tonnes and in the process, facilitated a change to alternative technology in a developing market.

Solar panels at MAT centre in Macgregor

Thus people looking for capital to invest in renewable energy projects will find willing investors in the voluntary offset market.

"Even if the voluntary carbon offset market will not save the world from climate change, it is providing real opportunities for eco-entrepreneurship, continues Matthew J, Kotchen, professor of economics at the University of California and faculty research fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

"Meanwhile, the demand for offsets is present and growing. Offset companies are making real money. And third parties are starting to keep sellers honest and buyers interested".

Of course, carbon offsets alone won't eliminate global warming. However, personal carbon offsets will do a lot of good if they get people thinking about the negative external costs resulting from their consumption, even if their actual offset effects are slight.

To offset or not to offset - what's a concerned traveller to do?

Ultimately, you need to look into reducing your emissions by choosing public transport (buses, trains and ferries are the most eco-friendly), or riding a bicycle or scooter. If driving a car, do so as little as possible and car-pool if you can.

Look at reducing your carbon footprint by how you live - grow your own food, reduce, reuse and recycle, cut down on meat, look at how you can reduce your water usage, buy local and plant as many indigenous trees as you can.

Tree planting at Grasmere

And if you purchase credits, make sure they come from a reputable vendor and are audited by independent third parties. You can also choose your carbon offsetting programmes wisely - from projects that invest in renewable energy to ones that actually guarantee they will plant that tree on your behalf.

Some projects will even send you pictures...


This article was adapted from:

Purchasing carbon credits in South Africa

The Rough Guide to Green Living by Duncan Clark

Carbon Offsets: A Small Price to Pay for Efficiency by

Robert H. Frank

The inconvenient truth of carbon offsets by Kevin Anderson

Carbon Offsetting: The Economist Debate

All about carbon offsetting: The Carbon Neutral Company

Offsetting Green Guilt by Matthew J. Kotchen

Carbon offsettting banner

Return from Carbon Offsetting to Green Travel

Return from Carbon Offsetting to Eco-friendly Africa Travel



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