Carbon Offsetting vs. Container Ships

Travelling on a container ship from Argentina to England last April got me thinking about carbon footprints. How much CO₂ did I save compared to flying? Would offsetting emissions from a flight have been as good as avoiding flying altogether? Does reducing your carbon footprint even help stop global warming?

1. Avoiding Emissions

So how much carbon did I save? I used calculators from Clear, Carbon Footprint and Climate Care which said one person flying from Buenos Aires to London is responsible for 1.86, 1.89 and 1.67 tonnes of CO2 respectively. So I’ll take the average of 1.8 tonnes.

container ship Carbon Offsetting vs. Container Ships

The Repubblica Del Brasile on which I travelled from Buenos Aires to Europe

But my trip on the boat had its own footprint, too. As the purpose of the ship was to carry cargo and not passengers, I treated myself as cargo for the purposes of the calculation. There were seven passengers on the 50,000 tonne ship but we weren’t responsible for one seventh of total emissions each, right?. The carbon footprint of cargo is 28g of CO₂ per ton per km travelled – I averaged five figures to get this. One Designosaur plus his luggage weighs about 125kg. I had a lot of luggage. The journey was 11,231km. My carbon for the voyage was therefore 32kg. In the end the ship didn’t go to England, so we had to get the Eurostar from Belgium, which was another 9kg. The total was therefore 41kg, or 52 times less than flying. Not bad. 1.76tonnes less carbon dioxide was put into the atmosphere because I didn’t fly. The average annual footprint for someone in the UK is between 10 and 11 tonnes.

map Carbon Offsetting vs. Container Ships

2. Would offsetting have been as good?

So instead of spending a month on a boat, couldn’t I have just flown and offset my carbon emissions?

The idea of carbon offsetting is to fund projects that reduce global CO₂ emissions by the amount you think you are responsible for, making you ‘carbon neutral’. Example projects might include installing low-energy lightbulbs or efficient cookers, planting trees or erecting wind turbines.

For various reasons, though, carbon offsetting is controversial:

  1. It is argued by some (see cheatneutral for an amusing example) that offsetting is a way of easing your conscience while continuing to cause damage. I don’t agree with that, as long as the projects funded genuinely reduce carbon emissions as claimed. To me, it’s more like dropping litter and then picking it up again (and recycling it!).
  2. A BBC report indicated that with some offset providers, only 30% of your money reaches the offset projects. The industry is unregulated and open to fraud, so you need to use a reputable company. The UK Government’s approval scheme ended in June 2011 as there are now effective voluntary standards such as the Voluntary Gold Standard and ICROA. These links have lists of providers which meet the standards.
  3. Carbon reduction projects that you are funding are not always ‘additional’. An example of this was when Climate Care distributed 10,000 energy efficient lightbulbs in a suburb of Cape Town in South Africa. It later discovered that the company which provided the bulbs was already distributing them free to many areas, including the suburb, so emissions reductions would have happened anyway, without the offsetting. So there wasn’t any ‘additional’ carbon reduction.
  4. Many people think offsetting is about planting trees. If you do this, the tree doesn’t start absorbing significant amounts of CO₂ until it has grown to a decent size, which can take years. Other projects have much more immediate impacts and many offset companies do not plant trees for this reason.

‘Energy Security’ is an issue that’s being discussed more and more now. Climate change aside, if we are not going to have affordable oil in 20 or 30 years’ time, then we need to make sure we have sufficient non-oil energy supplies, whether they’re other fossil fuels, renewable or nuclear. Offsetting your carbon does help with energy security as it’s funding projects to produce more non-oil energy or to reduce the amount of energy we need.

I believe that offsetting is better than not offsetting and for that reason I offset all my air travel with Climate Care, who, despite the incident with the light bulbs, do not plant trees, have Gold Standard credits, are used by many very large corporations and have won these awards. However, as there are inevitable uncertainties with any offset company, I would say that avoiding creating emissions in the first place is better than offsetting them afterwards. So the container ship wins in this respect.

3. Does reducing your carbon footprint even help stop global warming?

I’ve been giving this a lot of thought recently. Technically, reducing your carbon emissions reduces the greenhouse effect and therefore global warming. But…

  • There are very limited reserves of fossil fuels on the planet. ‘Peak Oil’ is now. A friend who works for BP told me there’s only really 20 years of affordable oil left. The price will rise as oil gets more scarce and more expensive to extract and this will reduce our consumption.
  • We are making some attempts to reduce our emissions but there was still a 5.9% rise in 2010, according to the Global Carbon Project, an international collaboration of scientists tracking the numbers. Apparently, Scientists with the group said the increase was “almost certainly the largest absolute jump in any year since the Industrial Revolution”. Global CO₂ did drop during 2009 but this rare occurrence has been attributed to the global recession and knock-on reduction in economic activity.
  • The world population has just topped 7bn, has doubled in 40yrs and is continuing to rise. ‘Developing’ countries are, of course, developing, which means more energy per person. These two things happening together are both still driving energy demand up.

Do all our efforts to reduce carbon emissions really stand a chance of significantly reducing climate change? Or are we going to burn all the affordable oil anyway (and fast) because we are SO dependent on it? I really don’t know, but I maintain that we should continue and ramp up our efforts because there is so much at stake. One thing is certain: we will be FORCED to adapt in the coming decades as oil price rises change our lifestyles and make things like flying much less affordable.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on all this so please do leave a comment below.

Climate Change Wales
The inconvenient truth about the carbon offset industry, The Guardian, 2007
A complete guide to carbon offsetting, The Guardian, 2011
Archived page about Government Approval Scheme
Carbon Emissions Show Biggest Jump Ever Recorded, New York Times 2011
Long-term Trend in Global CO₂ Emissions, EC Report, 2011
Worldometers: World Population Statistics