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Should You Offset Carbon Emissions on Airlines?

Last Updated on June 1, 2023 by Ecologica Life

Being carbon neutral is very hip these days. Many companies want to appear greener, some are actually doing something to help the planet and others are simply greenwashing.

These days, many airlines offer to offset the carbon emissions of your flight when you buy your ticket. In this article we want to explore where this money actually goes, whether it is worth offsetting your flight’s emissions and whether airlines are doing enough to “go green”.

What Is Carbon Offsetting?

Carbon compensation, also known as carbon offsetting, is the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, such as carbon dioxide, made to compensate for emissions generated elsewhere.

A diagram showing how carbon offset works.
Credit: UN Environment Programme

In theory, the money spent on carbon credits, sometimes called ‘offsets’, allows for a real climate impact that would not otherwise have occurred.

However, critics point out that carbon offsets are not dissimilar to the medieval “indulgences“, where an individual bought a place in heaven before going and committing whatever sins they wanted (including but not limited to drinking and prostitution). The more you paid, the more you could sin and still go to heaven.

There is also a spoof website cheatneutral.com that has been created to parody carbon offsetting. The site offers a kind of offsetting for cheating on your partner. “When you cheat on your partner you add to the heartbreak, pain and jealousy in the atmosphere, CheatNeutral offsets your cheating by funding someone else to be faithful and not cheat. This neutralises the pain and unhappy emotion and leaves you with a clear conscience.”

However, cheating and offsetting are not the same thing. To understand whether offsetting is worthwhile, it is necessary to understand why emissions are important and how airlines compensate for them.

Why Do Emissions Matter?

Aviation emissions are estimated to account for 2.5 to 2.8% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the EU each year.

Greenhouse gas emissions are one of the main causes of climate change or global warming. Climate change affects us all, and scientists have issued clear warnings to humanity about the severe consequences we will experience if we exceed the 1.5ºC and 2ºC limits set out in the Paris Agreement.

A critical analysis of carbon offsets was published by the European Commission in 2017, which found that 85% of projects reviewed under the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) failed to meet their goal of reducing emissions.

How Do Airlines Offset Their Carbon Emissions?

Greenhouse gases, airborne particles and water vapour are all produced and released into the environment by aircraft engines. It is this mix that makes them so polluting, but as CO2 is the most common greenhouse gas, it is the one that is offset.

The carbon dioxide produced during a flight is still released into the atmosphere, even if the flights are offset. Carbon offsetting attempts to offset your share of the carbon dioxide released by reducing it elsewhere, helping to slow the rate of global carbon dioxide release.

This often involves calculating the amount of CO2 produced by each flight and funding a project that reduces the CO2 by the same amount.

There are typically two main categories of offset projects used by airlines. The first are forestry initiatives that either stop the cutting of existing trees or plant new ones. Trees can sequester (store) carbon in the ground during over their lifetime, but this can take 50 or even 100 years to effectively remove a significant amount of atmospheric CO2 and store it into the ground.

The second category is energy projects, which invest in renewable energy or energy-efficient goods to reduce the amount of fossil fuels used – these initiatives can offset carbon faster than planting trees.

Both categories often have additional social and environmental benefits for the countries in which they are located.

Is Carbon Offsetting Worth it?

Carbon offsetting seems simple enough, so many frequent flyers will pay the extra money to travel guilt-free.

Some organisations set out to certify if money donated for carbon offsetting will make a real difference. Gold Standard is one such organisation based in Geneva. For carbon offsetting to be successful, a carbon offset project must meet six requirements set out by Gold Standard.

  • Additionality: The project wouldn’t have happened if the money from the carbon offset hadn’t been used to fund it.
  • Real: You can’t plant trees in one place if you plan on cut them down elsewhere.
  • Permanent: It can’t be undone in the future. This is tricky: how can you guarantee that the trees won’t be cut down in 50- or 100-years’ time?
  • Measurable: quantifies change with robust technology
  • Independently verified: by a qualified third-party auditor
  • Unique: No double counting or double claims

So if you do decide to offset, check your airline’s offset scheme – how is it calculated? And is it certified by Gold Standard or Carbon Standard?

Unfortunately, even if your airline is using a certified offset scheme, that is no guarantee. Heather Rogers, author of Green Gone Wrong, visited several offset schemes in India and found many anomalies. For example, she was not allowed to visit a Gold Standard certified biomass power plant, even though its employees had raised several concerns, including the sale of trees cut down for the plant’s intended use as fuel.

So is carbon offsetting worth it? Yes and no. While some carbon compensation alone can help in the fight to stop climate change, carbon offsetting doesn’t actually reduce emissions. Reducing our emissions is the key to stopping climate change, and offsetting is a slippery slope for many companies and individuals who believe that they are doing their part to reduce their carbon footprint when in fact it is not the real change we need.

To put things in perspective, the UNEP estimates that there is a gap of 15 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions between current policies and what is needed to avoid a 2ºC global temperature warming.

In other words, despite what companies and other organisations may claim, carbon offsets currently account for less than 1% of the work required to stay on a 2ºC trajectory and 0.4% of the effort required to stay on a 1.5ºC trajectory. Airlines and businesses need to focus of emission reductions, not just offsetting.

In conclusion, carbon offsetting isn’t bad in itself. If it is certified, then there is a change that it does a small amount of good, especially if it supports projects in developing countries. But it should not be used to make you feel better about high-carbon activities such as flying. Offsetting is a good place to start, but it should be part of other steps to reduce your carbon footprint (or become carbon neutral).

Could Airlines be Greener?

There are emerging technologies that could reduce the environmental impact of aviation, such as biofuels and electric aircraft. These will take time because they require significant investment and years of safety testing.

We are still a long way off yet from truly green aviation. However, we are likely to see more biofuel, electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft within the next decade.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents some 300 airlines, has committed to making the aviation industry carbon neutral by 2050. Whether the technology and infrastructure will be firmly in place to support carbon neutrality by 2050 remains to be seen, but current barriers to green aviation make it unlikely.

There is a production problem, even if the airlines are willing to commit to flying greener aircraft. There is currently an insufficient supply of new green aircraft. The typical waiting time for delivery is five years.

This affects the uptake of sustainable fuels such as hydrogen and biomass. There won’t be the level of demand for sustainable fuels that an energy company needs to make it a financially viable product if there aren’t the aircraft to use them.

Then there are electric aircraft. Unfortunately, battery manufacturers have yet to develop a battery with the longevity or aerodynamics required for long or even typical commercial flights. For now, electric aircraft are only viable for local flights.

The mining for minerals for electric batteries has its own environmental problems, with lithium mining destroying areas used by indigenous groups in Chile. Children are being used as slaves in cobalt mining in the Republic of Congo.

The key to widespread adoption, as with so many other green technologies, seems to be innovation. Can we perfect sustainable fuels? Can we make electric batteries that last and don’t ruin lives in the process? Can airports be truly sustainable?

At Ecologica.life, we are optimists, so we believe the answers are all yes. Green aviation is an emerging field, and opportunists and innovators will certainly profit from helping the aviation industry go green.

For now, however, we need to avoid flying unless we have to, and use more greener modes of transport such as trains whenever possible, until the aviation industry can deliver on its promise of zero emissions.

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