Carbon offset programs don’t counter global warming emissions despite their best efforts to do so, according to Responsible Travel, one of the world’s largest green travel companies that cancelled its offset program last month.

Even worse, the company says that providing offsets to travelers may actually increase emissions by giving consumers a false notion that they can fly as much as they want without harming the environment.

“The carbon offset has become this magic pill, a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card,” said Justin Francis, managing director of Responsible Travel. “It’s seductive to the consumer who says, ‘It’s $4 and I’m carbon-neutral, so I can fly all I want.’”

For Francis, the pivotal moment for him came when he heard that private jet companies and helicopter tour operators were offering carbon offsets.

“The message was, ‘Don’t worry, you can offset the emissions,’ ” he said. “But you don’t really need to see Sydney from the air, do you? And you can travel in a commercial airliner.”

Others, like Yahoo and the U.S. House of Representatives, seem to agree. This year, both cancelled their trial offset programs after coming to the conclusion that the money was better spent on energy efficiency upgrades to their buildings.

“Buying offsets is a nice idea, just like giving money to a soup kitchen is a nice idea, but that doesn’t end world hunger,” said Anja Kollmuss, a staff scientist for the Stockholm Environment Institute.

Despite the recent backlash, offset programs continue to be a multimillion dollar industry, according to the New York Times. Dozens of hotels and airlines have already signed up for offset programs, including United Airlines.

But the criticism of offset programs continues to grow as people figure out that it’s extremely difficult to monitor or quantify a green project’s emissions-reducing potential.

For example, if a frequent flyer buys offsets that go towards planting trees in a rain forest, who’s to say that those trees don’t get cut down in a few years, thereby releasing any carbon emissions that may have been sequestered and rendering the offsets useless.

In fact, that situation is indeed happening, according to the Times, particularly because there is little regulation of the industry.

Instead of buying offsets, some argue that air travel companies should invest in other energy-saving measures like buying more efficient planes, carrying full loads of passengers and packing in extra rows of seats, all measures that the European airline EasyJet has taken.

One airline has even asked that passengers use the bathroom before boarding to cut down on the plane’s weight and therefore increase energy efficiency.

Passengers should also look into more efficient ways of travel, such as by train or even bus, if available. Though rail options are pretty limited in the states, there are signs, like Warren Buffett’s recent decision to purchase a railroad, that this could change. 

Carbon offsets don't ease airplane emissions
Travel company cancels offset program citing its inability to reduce global emissions.