Does carbon-offsetting really enable guilt-free air travel?


  • Global
  • Thursday, 19 Mar 2020

Some travellers try to offset their carbon footprint by contributing to environmental projects. Photo: Daniel Reinhardt/dpa

Having grown up with parents who encouraged recycling, Jenny Beightol has always been aware of her environmental impact. She doesn’t own a car, and cycles or takes public transportation to get around town.

But the 32-year-old woman from Chicago, Illinois in the United States sometimes likes to travel to places like Mexico. This has led to soul searching, because scientists say that planes account for about 2.5% of global carbon dioxide production, which contributes to climate change.

To ease her guilt, Beightol buys “carbon offsets”, which allow her to invest in environmental projects as a way of compensating for the greenhouse gas emissions associated with her flights. She figures out her air travel carbon footprint using the site TerraPass and gives to a project led by the Southern Ute tribe in Colorado, which captures natural methane gas and redirects it into reusable energy.

“Until our governments step up and get involved and truly fund alternative, low-emission ways to travel, it’s really on us as individuals to do what we can, ” Beightol says.

In recent years, environmental activists have increasingly focused on pollution caused by the rapidly expanding aviation industry. The issue gained publicity last year with Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg’s decision to take a boat, rather than a plane, across the Atlantic Ocean. The British band Coldplay cancelled its fall world tour over environmental concerns. There’s even a Swedish word flygskam, which means “flight shame”.

For eco-conscious flyers like Beightol, there are a growing number of ways they can offset the emissions associated with their flights.

Many opt to pay an extra charge to a participating airline when booking a flight. The airline then contributes the money to a project that purports to do something to help the planet, like planting trees or investing in renewable energy.

Airlines offering offsets include JetBlue, Qantas, Air Canada and Chicago-based United Airlines, which is planting trees in Peru and Kenya through Conservation International.

Flyers can also use websites like Cool Effect, Green-e or Gold Standard, where they can learn about various environmental programmes to purchase carbon offsets for airline tickets they’ve already booked.

Contributing to an organisation or company that helps to plant trees each time you book a flight ticket is one of the few ‘carbon offset’ initiatives you can find these days. Photo: Rommel DiazContributing to an organisation or company that helps to plant trees each time you book a flight ticket is one of the few ‘carbon offset’ initiatives you can find these days. Photo: Rommel Diaz

Some travel apps are even offering to help. Hopper, the travel booking app, recently announced that it was planting four trees for every flight booked, and two trees for every hotel room reserved, at no extra cost to customers. The trees are being planted through an organisation called Eden Reforestation in six countries, including Madagascar and Indonesia.

“I’ve never been so happy to spend money, ” Hopper CEO Fred Lalonde says. He said he had never considered himself an environmentalist, but became “terrified” after his company started researching global warming.

“This is one initiative where we’re not looking at the cost, because the crisis is global and we have to act now, ” Lalonde says.

But do the offsets do any good? Peter Miller of the National Resources Defense Council in the US says that buying carbon offsets for air travel and skipping unnecessary flights can both be part of the solution to slowing climate change, though they’re definitely not all of it.

“If you do fly, offsets provide a way to mitigate the emissions from the trip, ” says Miller, director of the Western region of the organisation’s climate and clean energy programme. “That’s a lot better than doing nothing, which is what most folks are doing at this point.”

Miller cautions that carbon offsets are not a “get out of jail free” card, and there is a lot more everyone can do to help the environment.

Flyers should also be careful about picking a carbon offset programme, since they’re not equally reliable, Miller says. Scammers can claim they’re doing carbon offsetting in their backyards and take your money.

“It’s important for consumers to ensure that what they’re doing is really providing a benefit, ” Miller says. He is a board member of the Climate Action Reserve, a non-profit which develops offset protocols and serves as a registry for offset projects to track and ensure that the projects are doing what they claim.Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg prefers to travel by sea than air to reduce her carbon footprint. Photo: ReutersSwedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg prefers to travel by sea than air to reduce her carbon footprint. Photo: Reuters

Don Wuebbles, professor of atmospheric science at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, views planting trees to offset climate damage with skepticism.

“There’s certainly nothing wrong with planting more trees, but if you plant a tree, it takes 20 to 30 years before that tree pulls much carbon out of the atmosphere, ” Wuebbles says. “To me, it sounds like a bit of a gimmick.”

Wuebbles says people can reduce how much they fly, but admits that he’s a “terrible example” of that, having just flown back from a meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organisation in Montreal, Canada, at the time of this interview. He serves on the group’s special science committee.

Wuebbles says that one reason there is such concern about aviation is that even though it represents a relatively small percentage of emissions, it’s growing fast, as air travel has become such an important part of society for both business and pleasure. Besides carbon dioxide, aviation also produces contrails or condensation trails, which also are suspected of affecting the weather.

“The jury is still out as to how much, ” Wuebbles says.

The world’s airlines have committed to an international agreement called the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, according to Nancy Young, vice president of environmental affairs for Airlines for America, an industry group. Under the United Nations programme, airlines have agreed to offset carbon emissions on international flights exceeding 2020 levels using various programmes, Young says.

Unlike with cars, using batteries to operate planes may not be viable, Wuebbles says. He instead sees hope in using biofuels for planes, because while those still produce emissions, the fuel is coming from plants that have already taken carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, as opposed to fossil fuels, which are taken from under the ground.

Beightol says she realises there is a lot of scepticism about the benefits of offsets, especially tree planting, which is why she found a different offset project through Cool Effect. She says she is also making the choice to fly less, with fewer business trips for meetings that can be done through teleconferencing, and fewer “quick trips”.

“I feel for my friends that have to be in person for client meetings and they’re literally just flying in the morning and coming home at night, ” she says.

Douglas Kidd, executive director of the National Association of Airline Passengers, says his advocacy group just hopes that carbon offsets remain voluntary, “so that passengers can make their own decisions on how much they choose to donate, whether it’s a little, a lot or nothing at all.” – Mary Wisnewski/Chicago Tribune/dpa

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