What is CO₂ offsetting and why is the term misleading?

"Offsetting" means compensating for carbon dioxide emissions generated in one place by funding equivalent climate-effective reductions in another. This term can, however, create the wrong impression that no emissions are generated at all.

Many actions, such as shopping online, flying to Bali or attending a big event, can be quickly and easily “offset” with just a few clicks. The underlying idea is that this balances the impact of human activities on the climate. However, the term “offsetting” can be somewhat misleading. All too often, it is understood to mean that no emissions are generated at all. In reality, offsetting simply means that these already generated emissions are prevented or removed from the atmosphere elsewhere. Thus, they are “offset”. 

For these reasons, the Foundation myclimate has decided to stop using this term in its communications. Instead, myclimate recommends using the terms “climate protection contributions” or “climate protection financing”. The most important thing, however, is for everyone to take responsibility for their own emissions and strive to avoid or reduce them in the first place. As the myclimate principle says: “Do your best – take care of the rest.” In the case of truly unavoidable activities or emissions, the best thing is to make a corresponding financial contribution. 

What is Offsetting and how does it Work?

The term “CO₂ offsetting” describes measures aimed at compensating for the amount of carbon dioxide (CO₂) released by human activities. The basic idea is that if you cause CO₂ emissions to be produced – for example, by taking a flight – you then fund climate protection projects that save the same amount of CO₂ elsewhere or remove it from the atmosphere. By making this contribution to climate protection, you essentially assume, in your travel expenses, the environmental costs that would otherwise be borne by the public and the environment. 

A climate protection contribution like this can be invested in various project technologies. On the one hand, there are projects that avoid or reduce emissions by using renewable energies or implementing energy-efficient measures. Stove and biogas projects fall into this category. 

On the other hand, the Foundation myclimate also supports projects that remove emissions from the atmosphere; these are also known as “negative emissions”, “removals” or “sink projects”. These can be afforestation and reforestation initiatives that not only promote carbon storage but also reduce pressure on forests and biodiversity hotspots. 


Why does myclimate no Longer use the Term “Offsetting”?

The Foundation myclimate has decided to stop using the term “offsetting” for two reasons. 

First, the term can lead to misunderstandings and greenwashing. CO₂ offsetting is not a substitute for reducing and avoiding your own greenhouse gas emissions: even if climate-damaging activities like air travel are offset, emissions are still generated. 

In the worst case, use of the term can lead to misleading representations of climate-friendliness. Businesses, especially, must be careful when making green claims: if they use offsetting to portray themselves as climate-friendly without also reducing their in-house emissions, they could leave themselves open to accusations of greenwashing. 

Second, the term “offsetting” is also subject to changes in regulatory provisions. To prevent emissions reductions from being counted both in the transferring country (the one where they are generated) and in the receiving country, “corresponding adjustments” (CAs) have been introduced. These confirm the recognition of the emissions reductions in the country in which a climate protection project is being implemented. Currently, however, no country is making such CAs. 

The same applies, incidentally, to the terms “climate-neutral” and “climate neutrality”, which are also frequently used by businesses. The myclimate Engaged for Impact label is a good alternative way of communicating transparently and honestly about your climate-protection efforts.

How can I take Responsibility for my Emissions?

It's important to be aware of your own ecological footprint as a private individual, too – especially when you consider that:  
In 2022, around one third of greenhouse gas emissions were caused by private households. According to the Swiss Federal Statistical Office, the global per capita footprint already exceeds the available per capita biocapacity by 1.1 gha in 2022.

To actively reduce or prevent emissions in your day-to-day life, you can, for example, avoid travelling by car or plane, control your energy use (heating and electricity) and rethink your behaviour as a consumer. 

Here are some more tips on how to reduce emissions as a private individual

The Foundation myclimate recommendation regarding climate protection is: “Do your best – take care of the rest.” Instead of simply taking a flight and paying climate protection contributions, for example, you could ask yourself the following questions: 

  • Do I really need to take this flight? 
  • Could I switch to a more environmentally friendly mode of transport? 
  • Could I choose a different holiday destination? 
  • Or even: Is the trip really unavoidable or could I spend the free time more enjoyably in my own garden? 

There are some emissions that simply cannot be prevented, however. Here, and only here, is where climate protection contributions (previously known as “offsetting”) make sense. A typical example is the emissions caused by heating with fossil fuels, i.e. by burning gas or heating oil. Converting a heating system is not always possible or will take several years, or you have no influence over it because you live in rented accommodation. In this case, paying a corresponding climate protection contribution makes a lot of sense.  

The myclimate carbon footprint calculator makes it easy to calculate the CO₂ emissions you generate in your car or your living space, or while flying, heating or working. 

Summary: If you want to take responsibility, whether privately or as a business, for more unavoidable emissions, in addition to avoiding and reducing your own, you can finance climate protection projects. You can also donate money to climate protection projects at any time, regardless of your own CO₂ emissions.  


You can find further exciting information on the subject of climate change and climate protection in our climate booklet

Air emissions | Federal Statistical Office (admin.ch)
Climate: The most important facts in brief (admin.ch)
Federal Statistical Office (destatis.de)
Climate Protection Report 2023 (umweltbundesamt.at)


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