How Good Are Airline Carbon Offset Schemes?

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Photo by Kovah on Unsplash

This week I flew from London to Mexico City on AeroMexico.

When checking in, I was asked whether I wanted to offset my husband and I’s flights. Clicking yes, I was then informed that this would cost a mere £4 (US$5.15) for the two of us. For the length of the journey, this didn’t seem to be nearly enough.

The distance between London and Mexico City is 5535.44 miles. Using atmosfair.de, I calculated that for two passengers one way, our carbon emissions came to 2.8 tonnes — which the programme worked out would require €64.5 (US$71) to offset.

So how come AeroMexico’s Fly Green offset scheme charged me an amount 13 times less than recommended by Atmosfair? And how did I know whether this money would be put into offset projects that would really have an impact?

Calculating the cost of carbon

Carbon offsetting is notoriously difficult to calculate. Calculations depend not only on distance travelled but also aircraft type, fuel efficiency, passenger to freight ratio and passenger load. The price of carbon also fluctuates and differs between jurisdictions — despite being a global issue.

Using my trip to Mexico as an example, I calculated the emissions and suggested carbon offset price from three different airline schemes:

  • The carbonfund.org used by Alaska Airline and JetBlue, calculates 1.11 tonnes of carbon for the journey and suggested a US$11 donation.
  • United Airline’s carbon calculator, run by Conservation International, calculated my impact at 0.82 tonnes of carbon and suggested US$8.24.
  • Air Canada’s offset calculator, run by Less Emission, allowed me to include impacts of high altitude emissions and offered two different options. They calculated my emissions at 1.7 tonnes and suggested a US$18 per tone for Gold Standard-certified international offsets or US$15 per tonne for CSA-certified Canadian offsets.

You get the picture.

And what about impact?

Beyond cost, assessing the effectiveness of an airline offset scheme comes down to what types of projects it supports and whether there is true additionality to these projects.

Traditional offset schemes tended to invest in reforestation projects; however increasingly they are looking to waste management, renewable energy, clean cooking and broader land conservation projects for greater impact.

Advice to individuals seeking to offset their carbon emissions is to use reputable partners such as the Woodland Trust, Climate Care or Gold Standard. The same should be true for businesses and airlines.

And in this respect, the airlines look good. Air New Zealand’s Fly Neutral scheme partners with Climate Care to invest in forest restoration projects in New Zealand and international projects that support communities as well as care for environment.

United’s EcoSkies CarbonChoice programme invests in forest restoration projects in California and Peru and community development projects in Kenya through Conservation International. Other airlines use certified organisations to identify a variety of renewable energy, clean cooking and conservation projects.

Positively, airlines generally operate to high standards and partner with reputable carbon offset providers in order to guarantee the quality of the offset they are offering.

AeroMexico’s FlyGreen programme makes an annual contribution to projects in the Plataforma Mexicana de Carbono (The Mexican Carbon Project), Mexico’s carbon trading platform operated by the Mexican Stock Exchange.

Projects supported by the program include landfill in Guanajuato, wind farms in Oaxaca and solar power in Baja California Sur.

And here’s where the explanation for the difference in my cost calculations may lie. Where in the UK the price of carbon per tonne is $25 and in the US between $5–15, the Mexican Congress passed a carbon tax in 2017 pricing it at $3.50 per tonne.

Therefore, the cost of supporting projects in Mexico is significantly less than supporting in projects in the UK or US.

But that’s not all. This price differential raises further questions about impact in relation to offset schemes — would my £4 have more of an impact invested in a carbon offset scheme in the US or Mexico?

On the one hand, if the US is one of the biggest absolute and per capita polluters in the world, should we not invest in schemes that would directly reduce the US’s carbon emissions? However, on the other hand, if carbon emissions are a global issue, and we assume that the cost of building and operating a project is Mexico is less than the US, then perhaps we get more impact for our buck in Mexico.

Furthermore, offset investments in emerging markets and developing countries have the added benefit of providing access to the technologies that will prevent emissions in these countries reaching US per capita levels as their economies develop.

The good news

Carbon offsetting remains controversial. Critics will point out that the only way to truly reduce emissions is to avoid flying; that offset schemes encourage polluting behaviour; and that offsetting is used only to assuage the guilt of frequent flyers.

In some cases teleconferencing, finding alternative ways to travel or holidaying closer to home may be viable alternatives, but these are not always practical due to, amongst other things, time and cost requirements.

If you do decide to fly, carbon offsetting can have a positive impact.

And here’s the good news. While new green fuel technologies may still be years off, political will is catching up with the urgent need to reduce emission and halt damaging climate change.

As a result of a new UN agreement — the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation — by 2021 airlines that fly internationally will have to offset any additional emission themselves.

Many airlines have already taken dramatic steps to halt the growth of, or reduce, their emission. The Australian carrier Qantas is already certified carbon neutral and Delta Airlines has been investing in carbon neutrality since 2012 making sure its fleet of planes never reaches 2012 levels of emissions. Airlines like Emirates have invested heavily in upgrading their fleets to ensure they have the most fuel efficient plans, as well as taking responsibility for offsetting its emissions.

In 2020, British Airways will begin offsetting all domestic flights, and Norway has made a commitment to making all of its domestic flights electric by 2040.

Carbon offsetting may simply be a stop gap for now in the absence of any better solutions, but systemic change and the investment in technology needed to ultimately achieve net zero targets is beginning to take shape.

With global tourism set to continue to grow at around 5% per year, as burgeoning middle classes in emerging markets begin to travel abroad more, serious steps need to be take to ensure this growth is decoupled from further emissions growth.

What you can do to further reduce your carbon emissions

If avoiding flying isn’t an option, here are some tips to help reduce your impact:

  • Reward airlines that have invested in offset schemes and updated their fleet with more fuel efficient planes such as the Boeing 737s and Airbus 321neo
  • Check your airline’s policies on recycling and choose airlines that make more effort to reduce their impact
  • Pack light to reduce the weight you add to your plane
  • Bring a reusable water bottle and fill it before boarding
  • Use a mobile boarding pass instead of paper

Written by

Londoner. Traveller. Writer. Twitter: @jessicatoale Instagram: @jessica.toale

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