TORONTO -- Transportation issues have plagued the Liberal Party throughout the election campaign, from a media bus colliding with the wing of its plane, to its campaign bus bottoming out in a parking lot.

But none have been as contentious as the decision to travel from coast to coast using two planes, one for staff and media and the other for event equipment and luggage.

After being labelled a “high-carbon hypocrite” by the Conservatives, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau defended his party’s transportation record by saying they had purchased carbon offsets to balance their plane use—something the Conservatives have not done.

"In 2015, we also had two planes, we also bought carbon offsets to ensure that we could get out to meet more Canadians than any other campaign right across the country and at the same time ensure that we’re protecting the environment," Trudeau told reporters in Montreal Thursday morning.

What is carbon offsetting?

Carbon offsetting is a way of compensating for the carbon dioxide emissions that we release into the atmosphere. When you buy an offset, you fund projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In other words, individuals or companies can pay to invest in things such as wind farms or tree planting initiatives to “offset” the emissions created when flying, for example.

Though most carbon offsetting projects are done by governments and business who are aiming to meet emissions reduction targets, the average consumer can also buy offsets from companies like Less Emissions, a subsidiary of clean-energy provider Bullfrog Power.

The Liberal Party says it partnered with Less Emissions to buy offsets from the Essex-Windsor Regional Landfill Gas Capture and Destruction project to offset its dual plane use during the campaign.

Each one of the Liberals’ Boeing 737s burn up to 3,600 litres of fuel per hour. That’s far more than the Conservatives'  Airbus 319, which burns roughly 2,400 litres per hour.

Do carbon offsets actually cut emissions?

That’s debatable, according to Kate Ervine, associate professor of international development studies at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.

Ervine, who does research into carbon offsetting, notes that the practice isn’t about actually lowering emissions—it essentially “cancels out” the emissions that have already gone into the atmosphere.

“What an offset does is allows the Liberal Party to say we can keep doing what we’re doing… planes are hugely carbon intensive, but it’s all good because we’re buying offsets,” Ervine told CTVNews.ca by phone from Halifax Thursday.

“It provides a licence to do business as usual and that is dangerous.”

Offsetting has long been a controversial tool to fighting climate change.

A 2016 report published by the European Commission found that 85 per cent of the offset projects under the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) failed to reduce emissions.

Ervine notes that while some carbon offsetting projects can be highly effective, the practice is dangerous because it fails to acknowledge that we are still creating emissions, while creating a sense of “doing good.”

“I think [the Liberal example] does point to the danger that if you offset then you can do whatever you want,” she explained.

“Climate leadership isn’t doing even more and then claiming well we’re offsetting it. Climate leadership is saying it can’t be avoided, but we’re doing something.”

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