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  • Jess Breitfeller

On Carbon Emissions, Offsets, & Cognitive Dissonance


I’m in flight and on my way to Poland for the UN Climate Change Conference. It’s an exciting opportunity, but my excitement is also accompanied by a healthy dose of irony and cognitive dissonance. Let me explain… a roundtrip ticket to Katowice, Poland from Washington Dulles International Airport, with a layover in Frankfurt creates 1.09 metric tons of CO2 emissions.  With nearly 30,000 delegates expected to participate in the negotiations over the next two weeks, many of whom are flying great distances to get here, one can easily imagine how these emissions begin to add up.


To combat this, the UNFCCC is urging participants to offset their flights using certified emissions reductions (CERs) through Climate Neutral Now platform. These credits are created by supposed climate-friendly, socially responsible Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) projects, and vetted by UN guidelines established under the international Kyoto Protocol.


Having written my master’s thesis* on the social and environmental pitfalls of a CDM project in Panama, I’m fairly skeptical of carbon offsetting. In a general sense, there are a number of reasons to be critical. First, offsets can actually create perverse incentives, allowing people to feel comfortable with continuing or even increasing their air travel “guilt-free”. There are also issues associated with ensuring the carbon emissions reductions are in fact credible, taking into account additionality and leakage. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, offsetting contributes to an inequitable mitigation burden. That is, in many cases, those with the smallest carbon footprints, who are least likely to fly, are now being asked to play a large role in the solution.


Clearly, offsets aren't the best climate change solution. So, what are we—as social scientists, climatologist, environmental justice advocates, and policy wonks—to do? First, we must ask ourselves, are our flights—and their associated emissions—truly necessary? I’m willing to bet if many of us were completely honest with ourselves, the answer would be ‘no.’ The technologies we now have at our fingertips make accessing these events easier than ever, and with that in mind, I’m already considering participating remotely next year.

*Breitfeller, Jessica. 2014. “The Last of the Kings: The Political-Cultural Implications of Hydroelectricity in Naso Territory, Bocas del Torro, Panama.” Journal of International Service 23(2) 1-19.

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