10th Mountain Huts
October 12, 2023
Can I purchase carbon offsets for my upcoming hut trip?
At 10th Mtn, we love helping our community organize their upcoming hut trips. From first-timers planning a night out to experienced users embarking on multi-day, multi-hut adventures, we’re always happy to help plan, answer questions, and offer ideas.
One topic that we’re increasingly asked about is if we offer the option to purchase carbon offsets to mitigate the emissions of an upcoming hut trip.
We applaud the hut community for seeking ways to reduce their environmental impacts. However, recent studies have called into question the effectiveness of offsets as a solution to climate change, and as a result, we’ve decided against offering them to our guests.
The rise of offsets as a solution
It wasn’t long ago that carbon offsets were a leading topic in climate discussions. In 2009, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change declared, “Carbon offsets can play a valuable role in helping to reduce emissions and combat climate change.”
The UN wasn’t alone in their endorsement. The world was becoming increasingly concerned about climate change, and solutions to achieving net reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions were limited. The concept of offsets— reducing or removing greenhouse gases in one place to compensate for emissions elsewhere— made sense in theory. Everyone from environmental groups to corporations and politicians spoke of them as a potential panacea for managing global carbon emissions.
The first official carbon offset program was launched twenty years earlier, in 1989. An American electric power company financed an agro-forest in Guatemala to offset the emissions of a new coal-fired power plant in Connecticut.
It was a Eureka moment for the climate change movement. The new trees planted in the protected forest theoretically removed the same amount of CO2 from the atmosphere that the coal plant was generating. The carbon emissions were offset, and the coal plant could declare themselves carbon-neutral, or net-zero, to use another popular term.
On paper, carbon offsets allowed individuals, corporations, or even entire nations to mitigate their emissions, and the model quickly gained popularity. Global markets developed to broker deals that sold these offsets at a price to anyone who wanted them.
It wasn’t limited to planting trees. Organizations sold offsets that preserved forests from clear-cutting or development; others funded carbon dioxide removal and storage projects, renewable energy infrastructure, or improved waste and landfill management.
Brands were buying the offsets to claim net-zero status. Environmentally-minded consumers loved the idea and showed their support through their purchasing power. Before long, nearly everything could be offset— your airline flight, your utility bill, that bottle of spring water shipped halfway around the world
They were the peak of convenience for wealthy developed nations who could afford to pay for offsets (and coincidentally contribute to the bulk of global emissions). There was no need to reduce your carbon footprint. For a modest fee, you could have your emissions record wiped clean. Like a parking ticket, you could pay the small fine and continue to consume to the fullest.
Lax oversight = lots of problems
As corporations piled in, offsets grew into a multi-billion dollar industry. Scrutiny of these programs increased as well, which revealed troubling issues. From unmet pledges to over-promised environmental benefits or even outright fraud, it became apparent that the lack of oversight in these voluntary markets was a problem.
That’s not to say that all carbon offset programs have failed; some are demonstrably legitimate. But without oversight, it’s impossible to verify if an offset was executed as promised. Was land conserved? Were trees planted as promised? Can it be proven that the money paid into the offset really netted a reduction in greenhouse gases? In many cases the answer isn’t very clear.
Even when done right, offsets have their issues. Conserved land must stay conserved in perpetuity. The same goes for sequestered carbon. Planted trees are only a benefit if they survive. Scientists believe it can be 20 years before a newly planted tree has grown enough to remove carbon from the air significantly. In that time, there’s a likelihood they could perish from disease, drought, future deforestation, or wildfire.
A better approach to emissions reductions
At 10th Mountain, we’re not looking to point fingers or lay blame. However, it has become apparent that carbon offsets are not the easy solution once promised. They can provide a path to mitigated emissions, but they are fraught with shortcomings, and as a result, we have opted against offering them to our hut visitors.
The alternative is a simple one. Instead of paying others to offset our consumption, we should reduce our emissions the old-fashioned way— by consuming less ourselves. From carpooling to trailheads to reducing propane and firewood use, hut visitors can take simple steps to impact the carbon footprint of their hut trip. Let’s not try to shift the burden to someone else.
If you want to put money towards something impactful beyond your hut trip, consider contributing your offset funds to elect board members at your local utility or representatives at all levels of government who can affect policy directly. Effective policy changes will have a much more significant effect on emissions than giving your money to organizations that promise to do it for you in some remote location halfway around the world.
There may be a day when regulation and oversight lead to proven, verifiable offset programs, which we would love to offer our hut users. In the meantime, we all need to do our part to reduce our consumption, be more efficient and mindful of our emissions, and not look to pay our way out of responsibility.
10th Mountain Division Hut Association understands that if we do not take action to stop the effects of climate change, the hut experience we know and prefer might cease to exist.
As part of its Climate Project, 10th Mountain is working to spark conversation about climate and to influence choices and policy.
Learn more about 10th Mountain’s Climate Project