Carbon offsetting can be like medieval Catholic penance: you commit a sin, you pay a price or do an act, and you’re absolved. We plant some trees after taking a high-polluting plane ride, and we’re good, right?
Beyond individual guilt, however, there’s a powerful realism underpinning the creation of carbon offset calculators. In some ways, the philosophy of offsetting inherently recognizes that the old, radical dreams of preventing human advancement, destroying construction sites, and throwing blood at meat-eaters did little to rally support for sustainability, and a lot to damage low-income jobs. Despite the severity of climate crisis, we have everyday emergencies—ambulances, hospital generators, research facilities. We’re not going to stop important travel and medical advances that rely, for the time being, on fossil fuels. To borrow religious terminology, carbon offset calculators represent an understanding that we live in a fallen world.
The hope, of course, is to fund development and support of clean energy infrastructure to eventually replace this fallen world—a dream that particularly resonates with wilderness medicine providers, who have an emotional and even vested financial and professional interest in maintaining the wilderness in which they work. Within the wilderness medicine community, discussions have begun all over the world centered around offsetting conference costs and finding ways to go virtual while still understanding the life-saving cultural and research value of actually traveling to put boots on the ground. Medical providers who want to do more than pay penance will need to select carbon offset calculators that actually contribute to potential change and advancements, instead of simply “offsetting the bad I did.”
A number of carbon offsetting calculators have created industry standards, each with their own priorities for monitoring quality. When accrediting carbon offset calculators, the Plan Vivo Standard specifically looks for biodiversity programs and support for smaller, local populations in the area of impact. The Gold Standard, which certifies over 1,700 projects across 80 countries, focuses on what they consider to be the biggest weakness with carbon offsets, such as impermanence—obviously—and leakage, which occurs when emissions just shift from one place to another. Verra, ACR, and CAR are other registries that help to verify projects actually accomplish what they claim.
These standards do not eliminate the need for the individual consumer to evaluate where their money actually ends up, but might represent an excellent starting point for the busy provider who doesn’t have as much time for research as they would like.
Taking the time to research the “back end” of various carbon calculators also allows providers an encouraging view of the changes occurring as industry giants take the impetus away from government-only initiatives, and put the carbon conversation into the grassroots, high-impact hands of the consumers and businesses—spurring lasting cultural change that is far more powerful than top-down control. Even global shipping behemoth Maersk is now introducing carbon-neutral biofuel, and will operate the world’s first carbon neutral liner by 2023, seven years ahead of schedule. Lyft is now fully carbon-neutral. Beyond the personal hope offered by this kind of news, understanding various offsetting options also allows providers to educate their high-impact clientele: wilderness medicine providers often find themselves in the unique position of advising community anchors in underprivileged areas, wide-reaching online influencers on expedition, and wealthy vacationers with powerful, high-carbon assets under their control.
Different calculators focus on different views of the future. German offset calculator Atmosfair funds biogas options for farmers. My Climate emphasizes negative emissions, or unusual technologies or replantation programs that actually remove CO2 from the air. CLEVEL focuses on international community-based solutions instead of large commercial enterprises, hoping to have more measurable long-term impact: sustainable development in low-income, majority world nations protects the future as shifts in the current geopolitical climate position many of “developing nations” to be future world powers. Other calculators focus on convenience and behavior: there’s actually even a browser add-on that online shoppers can use to actually off-set the carbon costs of online shopping, CarbonCroc.
Of particular interest to WMS members, Protect Our Winters is an offset calculator specifically geared towards wilderness medicine expeditions. POW focuses specifically on additionality, which means an offset project should not have occurred under the normal course of business—it must be additional to existing projects, in order to actually reduce emissions instead of just making them stable. Additionality also means that projects aren’t being claimed twice—once by a government, and once by a company—because if multiple polluters are claiming the same project to offset their emissions, you still have a net increase in emissions. POW always works with projects registered through an accrediting standard, and actually helped to offset travel for the WMS’s Winter 2020 Sun Valley keynote speaker, Clare Gallagher.
The WMS Environmental Committee has found great value in directly offsetting costs when a calculator does not provide enough value. For the Sun Valley speaker, Protect Our Winter’s ultimate offset only rounded out to roughly $10, which was given to the South Kent Landfill “Gas to Energy” Project in Michigan. To make up for this, Dr. Gallagher offset more of her travel by donating directly, with $225 to Environmental Law Institute, $200 to the Colorado 14ers Initiative, $210 to the Gwich’in Steering Committee, and $200 to the Alaska Wilderness League. Physicians can also donate directly to education projects: for the 2022 Spring Dive Medicine Conference, Dr. Lynn Young donated $1000 to show the “Diving Deep: Life and Times of Mike DeGruy” documentary.
This “self-offsetting” demonstrates the importance of helping the carbon consumer to understand their options at a more granular level. When it comes specifically to air travel, there are a number of further resources consumers can look at to better understand these choices. ICAO, which creates flight guidelines for the UN, has developed sampling and measurement systems to evaluate particle emissions for certain engines, and engine manufacturers have begun to develop “advanced rich burn and lean burn combuster technologies.” Fuel-efficient aircraft such as the Boeing 787-8 and 787-9 also save money for airlines in the long run, using improved aerodynamics, lighter building materials, new wing tip shapes, and more thermally efficient propulsion systems. It is perfectly reasonable to look up what your chosen airline uses through the airline website, Google flights, or using this guide by PointsGuy.
Traveling physicians can also choose flights based on what airport they pass through. Copenhagen Airport has altered its airplane taxi routes to optimize particulates in the air, and beyond environmental improvements this actually improved operation by making more room on taxiway M for arriving traffic; they are also cutting down on the time planes sit idling their engines, which would improve customer experience and obviously decrease pollutants. As solar and wind power have become cheaper due to consumer pressure and industry advancement, airports can now investigate using sustainable energy to power gates and terminals.
In the end, consumer-level airflight preferences, like carbon offset calculators, are an extension of the power of consumer financial choice. Despite the best efforts of the EPA, corporate organic farming changes only propagated at the national grocer level when consumers began to demand this alternative with their pocketbooks; enormous companies like Google only “go green” because it improves their bottom line by attracting higher quality stock holders, expanding their grassroots customer base via free positive PR, or offering them monopoly over new innovations and products. As important community educators—and often well-to-do carbon-producers themselves—providers must understand that the market is the strongest force to combat climate change, especially when compared to ineffective, expensive top-down controls that do not last when administrations change. Carbon offset calculators are a first step in acknowledging that market power; carbon choice education is the first step in putting power back in the hand of the individual to save our world.