Yet, while research has started to explore the diverse reasons why corporations invest in offsets [1], we do not know why some individuals choose to offset emissions from flying, driving or other activities – or, indeed, their entire carbon footprint – and why others do not. Also, we don’t know how carbon offsetting relates to people’s broader lifestyles and values. For example, carbon offsetting could provide a means to promote carbon literacy and, ultimately, encourage low-carbon lifestyles; on the other hand, it’s been described as a "climate get-out clause" – a means to assuage guilt about flying and other carbon-intensive activities. If so, offsetting may even encourage more energy consumption, becoming a moral hazard, since individuals would feel no compulsion to avoid actions they are already "paying for".

To address these issues, at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research we are conducting a large postal and internet survey of UK residents to find out their views on carbon offsetting, the reasons why they do – or don’t – buy carbon offsets, and whether carbon offsetters differ in their knowledge, attitudes, values and lifestyles. The survey was launched in August 2008. As of the end of September, we have received over a thousand responses – 689 from the web survey (of which 29% are offsetters) and 470 from the postal survey (of which 7% are offsetters).

Already we are finding some rather surprising attitudes to offsetting, and some very clear differences between offsetters and non-offsetters [3]. The differences are particularly pronounced amongst the internet respondents. (It is important to note that the internet sample is not representative of the UK population: they are typically younger and educated to a higher level than the representative postal sample. For this reason, we are reporting the results from the two samples separately).

In general, we are finding that most people are ambivalent about offsetting. While many people recognise the environmental and social benefits that it may bring, there are also widespread practical and moral concerns. Many practical concerns stem from the unregulated nature of the offset industry, variation in how carbon offsets are calculated, lack of transparency about company administration costs and profits, and doubts about the effectiveness of certain mitigation and sustainable development schemes. Ethical objections, which have also been raised by Friends of the Earth amongst others, centre around the implicit business-as-usual approach of carbon trading whereby individuals and organisations can continue consuming and polluting, and simply "buy their way out of" their environmental responsibilities.

While we are finding that people who offset are generally more positive about the benefits of offsetting – for climate change mitigation, biodiversity protection, and sustainable development in the global south – they are also well aware of these problematic aspects of offsetting. For example, the same proportion (67%) of offsetters and non-offsetters agree that "carbon offsetting encourages people to carry on doing things that harm the environment". Rather surprisingly, only 20% of offsetters (versus 9% of non-offsetters) say they "trust companies offering carbon offsets to use the money I paid in the right way'"! It seems that lack of trust and ethical concerns are not enough to prevent offsetters from paying firms to deal with their emissions for them.

Spot the difference
In several important ways, though, offsetters are very different to non-offsetters. Firstly, there are significant demographic differences between the two groups: offsetters are richer and have a higher level of science education than non-offsetters. Four-in-ten (39% of) online offsetters have household incomes of over £50,000, compared to only one-quarter (27%) of non-offsetters. And 38% of online offsetters have a postgraduate science qualification, compared to 22% of non-offsetters.

Secondly, offsetters know more about climate change and care more about it than people who don’t offset. In the online sample, 94% of offsetters state they know "a fair amount" or "a lot" about climate change, compared to 85% of non-offsetters. Whereas only 47% of online non-offsetters have used a carbon calculator to work out their carbon footprint, the proportion is 80% amongst offsetters. More offsetters (88% of online respondents) than non-offsetters (71%) feel climate change is affecting, or will affect, them; and 73% of online respondents who offset, compared to only 43% of those who do not offset, say climate change is “very important” to them personally. (In the postal survey, the proportions in each category are lower, but differences between offsetters and non-offsetters are still significant). These major differences between the two groups appear to suggest offsetters are more carbon literate than non-offsetters.

What’s more, offsetters have more environmentally-friendly values and identities than non-offsetters. We used two measures of "pro-environmental values" and offsetters scored significantly higher than non-offsetters for both. Similarly, offsetters scored higher in the measure of "environmental self-identity", that is, how green they consider themselves to be and want to be seen to be.

Finally offsetters are more likely to report having low-carbon, pro-environmental lifestyles than non-offsetters. In our survey, we asked about 24 regular and one-off actions relating to the environment, ranging from purchase decisions to energy and water use. Respondents were given scores according to how often or how recently they took these actions. Amongst online participants, 28% of offsetters and only 10% of non-offsetters score in the top half of this scale. Looking at energy conservation behaviours only, the proportions are 15% and 4%, respectively.

The fly in the ointment
But there is one important exception to offsetters’ green lifestyle. Offsetters are more likely to fly (and to fly a lot) than non-offsetters. Whereas 62% of online non-offsetters fly, the proportion rises to 70% amongst offsetters. (In the postal sample, the proportions are 52% and 64%, respectively. Offsetters also tend to take multiple flights per year for social and leisure reasons, whereas non-offsetters usually take only one or two flights per year. Our survey shows that flying is indeed the most popular activity for which offsets are bought – around 60% of offsetters have offset flights.

So are carbon offsetters more or less green than people that don’t buy offsets? The answer is both yes and no. Offsetters’ attitudes and values are apparently greener and they are more likely to have low-carbon lifestyles in all ways but one. Their one green "sin" is flying, which unfortunately probably cancels out all the green "good deeds" they take in their daily lives. Despite priding themselves on being environmentally-friendly, offsetters are actually likely to have higher carbon footprints than non-offsetters. This is consistent with the findings from research recently undertaken at the University of Exeter, UK. Stuart Barr and colleagues found that even the most committed green people are amongst those who regularly fly [4]. Often it seems people feel it’s natural to behave differently on holiday, and that they have earned time off from their commitments – including their green commitments.

This inconsistency between attitudes and behaviour is not uncommon in all manner of areas. In fact, the so-called "value-action" gap has been consistently observed in behavioural research, including studies of environmentally-relevant action [5]. There are many reasons why people don’t act in keeping with how they think or feel. In relation to energy conservation, barriers to action can exist at both the individual level – such as competing priorities or lack of knowledge about appropriate measures – and wider social and structural levels, for example, social norms to consume and lack of public transport options.

For those interested in changing the public’s behaviour and promoting low-carbon lifestyles, these barriers imply major challenges. Information campaigns to encourage voluntary lifestyle change have met with little success because they do not address the structural influences on behaviour. For example, some people simply cannot afford to buy more energy-efficient appliances, or as tenants they are unable to do anything about their poorly-insulated homes. So we should not be surprised that people who engage in certain green actions such as carbon offsetting – if, indeed, we agree offsetting is really a “green” action – are often not consistently green across their whole lifestyle. Such consistency across a range of behaviours will remain out of reach in many cases while societal structures do not support green lifestyles and while people continue to view decisions about holidays differently to other decisions. The uncomfortable truth is that where and how we holiday may be even more environmentally significant than the day-to-day activities we tend to fetishize as objects of our green principles.

1. Lovell, H., Bulkeley, H. & Liverman, D. (2008). Carbon offsetting: sustaining consumption? Environment & Planning A, in press.

2. DEFRA (2007). 2007 Survey of Public Attitudes and Behaviours toward the Environment. London: DEFRA.

3. Whitmarsh, L. & O’Neill, S. (2008). Carbon off-setting behaviour: catalyst for – or evasion of – low-carbon lifestyles? Paper presented at International Conference on "Climate change impacts and adaptation: Dangerous rates of change". Exeter, Sept 22-24

4.Barr, S., Coles, T. & Shaw, G. (2008). Changing behaviours for a changing climate: a lifestyles approach. Paper presented at International Conference on "Climate change impacts and adaptation: Dangerous rates of change". Exeter, Sept 22-24

5. Lorenzoni, I., Nicholson-Cole, S., & Whitmarsh, L. (2007). Barriers perceived to engaging with climate change among the UK public and their policy implications. Global Environmental Change, 17(3-4), 445-459.