In Will MacAskill's book 'Doing Good Better' he notes that carbon offsetting is a good option if you're partaking in activites which are harmful to the environment e.g. flying. In the book, he recommends charity 'Cool Earth' as a good place to donate too. Having a quick look around the forum, it appears that this is no longer recommended, see in particular this post.
I fly a few times a year and have began to feel guilty about this, and so I thought that offsetting the carbon from these flights (and other parts of my lifestyle) may be a good way to 'do my part' in helping reduce the severity of climate change. But when I started to look into this I've just ended up being really confused about wht the general EA stance on this is. I've seen recommendations, and then other posts which say these are not good places to donate too, leading me to be unsure of what to do. So, I thought I'd bring it up as a question: do you offset your carbon emissions? If so, where to and why? If you've consciously made a decision not to offset, why is that? Am I better of taking the money I would spend on offsetting and donating to one of GiveWell's top charities instead?
Yes, I offset my carbon (using Wren). It comes out of my lifestyle budget, not my EA charity budget, because the carbon impact also comes from my lifestyle. I feel strongly it is not ok to offset carbon using my charity budget because it is not one of the most effective things to do with that budget, but it makes me feel better about the way the rest of my life is going.
"In the first post in this series, Climate and Lifestyle: policy matters, we discussed some of the most important lifestyle decisions for the climate and saw the effect that climate policy has on each person's potential impact. However, our analysis excluded one crucial lifestyle decision: donations to effective climate non-profits.
The potential impact of effective donations
Emissions per person vary considerably even across rich countries: the average American emits 18 tonnes of CO2 per year, whereas the average Swede emits only 7 tonnes. As a guiding rule, if you live in a rich country and live a typical lifestyle, then you probably emit between 5 and 20 tonnes of CO2 each year.
Our research suggests that Founders Pledge-recommended climate charities - the Clean Air Task Force and the Coalition for Rainforest Nations - have in the past averted a tonne of CO2 for less than $10 in expectation (i.e. after weighting the impact of the changes they worked for by the probability that the organisation actually made a difference), and potentially much less. Therefore, as Figure 1 shows, the expected impact of your personal donations is much larger than any of the lifestyle decisions discussed in the first post:
figure 1: Climate impact of lifestyle decisions compared to effective donations (tonnes of CO2)
This being said, it is very important to choose carefully who you donate to. Many organisations offer surprisingly cheap carbon offsets, promising to abate a tonne of CO2 with high confidence for $1 or less. These figures are not realistic. The incentives are not set up well for organisations to provide reliable carbon emissions reductions. There is limited oversight of offsetting organisations' work, so they have an incentive to offer attractive price points without actually reducing emissions. Thus, choosing instead to donate to effective policy and research organisations is crucial. The impact is plausibly 100 times greater.
The limited ambition of offsetting
This raises the question: does donating offset the harm you do by emitting? We argue that looking at donating through the lens of offsetting is doubly flawed. Most importantly, it limits people's ambitions. People ask: how can I undo the effect of my own emissions? Instead, they should ask: how can I have the biggest possible impact on climate change?
If we only donate to offset our personal emissions and no further, then we hugely restrict our potential impact. A typical person emits 5-20 tonnes of CO2 each year. So if you assume that the most effective climate charities can abate a tonne of CO2 for less than $10, then you can offset your emissions for just $200 per year. Our recommended charities operate on budgets in the low millions but have led policy campaigns that have had a huge effect on global climate policy. Many people in wealthy countries could give more than $200 to support them, and thereby have enormous leverage.
Ethics and offsetting
Secondly, donating to effective climate charities almost never, in any meaningful sense, offsets the harm you do by emitting.
In sum, it is not usually feasible to truly offset the harm from your past emissions. So, on rights-based views, donations to climate charities do not offset any harm you have done by emitting. On consequentialist theories, offsetting is always irrelevant, and we should instead try to do the most good with our donations. If stopping climate change turns out to be the best way to do good, then donations should be a top priority for the climate-conscious individual. For a more detailed treatment of these and more considerations, refer to our full research report on Climate and Lifestyle."
Thanks for the link to the Cool Earth post. I don't offset for two reasons:
Climate offsets are frequently ineffective, for reasons discussed in the Cool Earth post and, more journalistically, here;
Focussing on policy change to reduce emissions such as a frequent flyer tax or mandating cleaner fuel or better fuel efficiency will have higher impact than focussing on individual carbon footprints, especially as the latter individual focus may take attention away from the systemic changes needed.
While many organisations offering offsets offer quite ineffectual solutions, there are likely to be a small proportion that are highly effective; however, these would take some searching and aren't obvious unless you do a significant amount of research. At any rate the ones involved from clicking 'offset this flight' on the airline's payment page are likely to be poor value.
Given that there is wide public interest in and desire to contribute to offsetting, it may be that the most effective donations in this area could be to organisations that publicise and/or certify those few schemes that offer and can demonstrate genuinely effective offsetting, to ensure that more money ends up going there. I don't know of any such organisations though. Or there is the option of donating to organisations that lobby for evidence-based policy change - aviation emissions are significantly more impactful than public perception believes (source).
You're then into comparing effective climate donations vs effective global development donations at least!
My current recommendation for offsets is https://tradewater.us/, which purchases and destroys high global warming potential refrigerants. It's a permanent counterfactual offset with few displacement/additionality concerns and they are relatively cheap (~$17/ton).