How You Can Help Save the Environment with Carbon Offsets

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4 minute read


In 2019, Greta Thunberg took a sailboat across the Atlantic ocean to attend the United Nations Climate Action Summit. Why didn’t she just fly? While there are many sources of carbon emissions that are damaging to the environment, businesses and consumer activity also contribute to emissions by burning coal, oil, and natural gas. By sailing, Greta was reducing her carbon footprint.

Climate activist Greta Thunberg speaking while holding a microphone
Greta is an enthusiastic defender of the environment.
Image courtesy of Stefan Müller via Wikimedia Commons.

Seeking alternative forms of travel is just one way to reduce a carbon footprint; there are many sources of carbon, and many ways to make a difference. How does this affect you, in your journey to travel the world and experience other cultures? Traveling to embassies for visa appointments, your ride to the airport, your flight, your lodging, the food you eat, and your travel around another country - virtually every step of your journey results in carbon emissions. But there’s good news: a concept called “carbon offsets” might help you reduce your carbon footprint!

A city skyline with two smokestacks producing smoke
Smokestacks are a very visible carbon producer, but many sources of carbon go unnoticed by travelers.
Image courtesy of Pexels.

There are many ways that you can calculate your carbon footprint. (We offer some resources below.) If finding alternative means of travel and adjusting your lifestyle aren’t enough, you might consider investigating carbon offsets. As TechTarget explains, an individual or company calculates their emissions level, and someone who coordinates carbon offsets, known as a “broker,” then adds up a monetary value based on that level.

The broker will then invest a portion of that money in a project that reduces carbon emissions. For example, an individual may take a flight that will release a certain amount [of emissions] into the atmosphere. The person uses a tool to calculate the emissions released on that flight and then buys a carbon credit from a broker to offset that amount of emissions. The broker subtracts its fee and uses the rest of the money to invest in an emissions project, such as a reforestation effort.

This “emissions project” is meant to help make up for damage to the environment from the person or company’s carbon footprint. Think of it like a scale: you’re trying to balance, on one side, the harm you do for the environment with, on the other side, good things for the environment. The goal is to “offset” the bad with the good, resulting in a balanced scale. Ideally, of course, the scale would tip towards good, rather than simply being balanced. However, carbon emissions have gotten so bad that international organizations are first focusing on being “carbon neutral,” which is itself a very challenging task.

It’s also important to keep in mind that any carbon offsets should be near where you’re planning on leaving your carbon footprint. According to Vox, “to reduce local air pollution, you need to have your offset in the vicinity of the pollution source, like a coal power plant. Otherwise, the offset won’t do anything to improve air quality.”

Why is a discussion on carbon offsets more critical now than ever before? According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), “emissions attributed to urban areas have ticked upward from around 62% of global share in 2015 to between 65% and 72% in 2020.” And planes are responsible for 12% of CO2 emissions from all transport sources.

So, what can you do? Start with educating yourself about your carbon footprint and then working towards positive change. For example, in a recent poll around seventy-five percent of InterExchange BridgeUSA participants said that they travel via plane to tour the U.S. during and after their program. While this is certainly fast and convenient, it also contributes to harmful emissions. Plus, alternatives to flights offer fun ways to see the USA: you could rent a car with your friends, or take a scenic Amtrak train trip around the country!

Five women sit in the back of a van parked on a road
Consider skipping the flight; road trips are a part of American culture!
Image courtesy of Pexels.

You can visit this link to gauge your carbon footprint at every step of your journey. Want to get specific? Here are some websites you can use to reduce and track your footprint along your travels:

And here are some other apps and services you might consider sharing as a resource:

  • Klima: This new app offsets your carbon footprint, then helps you shrink it
  • Terrapass: Buy Carbon Offsets to Reduce Carbon Footprint
  • Wren: a tool for learning about the climate crisis and taking action
  • Fast Company: Business news that includes environmental reporting

With this environmental awareness, let’s begin that journey! Check out InterExchange’s programs for U.S. citizens looking to travel the world here. Or, if you’re from outside the USA and looking to work in the USA, visit this page!

Matt Wallace

Matt Wallace is the Community & Digital Content Manager for the InterExchange Marketing team. He received a Master of Science in Global Affairs from New York University, and worked with the State Department and two New York organizations with missions to introduce young people to multiculturalism and international relations. He is excited to leverage this experience with InterExchange!