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Carbon Offset Flights: How to Fly Without Harming the Environment

Women on the Road
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If you’re anything like me, you like to travel consciously and do as little damage to the planet as possible – no damage at all would be best!

But barring that, if you could reduce the environmental impact of aviation, wouldn't you at least try?

Air travel is one of the most inefficient – aka environmentally unfriendly – ways to explore the globe today, and those of us who care about these things must try to balance our love of adventure with our love for the planet.

One of the simplest and most popular ways of easing this guilt is to buy carbon offsets. But is this enough? Does an airline carbon offset really work? And what other things can we do to be eco-friendly while still trotting the globe?

While this may be moot right now, travel will pick up again and it would be nice if we could avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

Why is air travel so bad?

As a global industry, aviation has been trying (with mixed results) to clean up its act for the last three decades. In fact, carbon emissions for passengers are now around half as low as they were in 1990, yet there are many more flights.

At first sight it sounds promising, but we should mitigate our enthusiasm. 

By early 2020, more people were flying than ever before, mostly as a result of the soaring popularity of low-cost carriers (10 euros for a flight, anyone?) and increasing demand. According to the latest available statistics, in 2019, more than 4.5 billion passengers were recorded globally. 

At the time, that number was expected to double by 2037. And global carbon dioxide emissions – 2.4% of which come from our travels – were set to triple by 2050. While the coronavirus has upended these figures, there is no question that whatever the outcome, flying will have to become more environmentally sustainable.

According to carbonbrief.org, “If aviation were a country, it would be the sixth largest in the world, between Japan and Germany.”

The flight shaming trend

It's not really breaking news that air travel is a big offender when it comes to climate change – so why has it increasingly been in the headlines?

Even before the lockdowns and travel bans, we could see a swelling interest in all things green and sustainable, fueled by climate change activists and advocates such as Greta Thunberg and her actions over the past year. Her travels received broad media coverage as she tried to crisscross the globe as efficiently as possible by train – or via two epic catamaran trips across the Atlantic ocean to attend the COP 25 Climate Change conference.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the latest trend of flight shaming originated in Greta’s country of birth – Sweden.

Known as “flygskam,” this movement encourages (or at times, bullies) people into considering whether they really need to fly or not. This growing trend could see flight shaming be as big as plastic straw shaming was over the last few years.

Apparently, the peer pressure had an effect – in Sweden, at least. In 2019, airports nationwide recorded a nine per cent reduction in domestic flights, and its major airline noted a two percent drop in passengers compared to 2018. 

Now, in light of the new world we are facing, that consciousness is if anything expanding. While some people may believe life will return to normal, most feel that 'normal' will not be something we know. Given the danger posed by a virus and our realization of the precariousness of life as we know it, it would make sense for societies to want to preserve what exists and diminish pressure on our natural world.

What is carbon offsetting and how do carbon offsets work?

Carbon offsetting is a way of balancing out our impacts on the globe – in other words, our carbon footprint – by investing in projects that reduce carbon emissions.

By purchasing carbon offsets for flights, we can contribute to reducing negative environmental impacts on our planet.

Here's how it works: we purchase 'shares' in projects that help renew our environment by reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Projects may involve planting trees (or letting them grow for longer), reducing or catching greenhouse gases that come out of landfills, supporting projects that offer alternatives to fossil fuels (such as wind farms), or paying a local farmer to change farming practices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

How can I use carbon offsetting to make up for my flight?

Here’s where most of the hard work is done for you. There are numerous programs around that provide carbon offset options, and a great many of these are targeted especially to flyers.

Some airlines simply allow you to tick a box when you reserve: you offset your flight using one of the airline's own projects.

Alternatively, you can jump online and do it yourself with a reputable program, many of which include a flight carbon calculator so you know exactly how much carbon you need to offset for your flight.

If you’re looking for a standalone carbon emissions flight calculator, make sure it’s from a recognized agency, like this one from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) or this one at Atmosfair.

How much does it cost to carbon offset a flight?

Prices vary depending on where you’re looking, but as a guideline, Carbonfund provides offsets starting at $20 for flights of up to 10,000 miles (approximately 16,000km), but prices vary widely.

Is carbon offsetting legitimate?

Just like any scheme, you may need to do a little bit of homework. Of course, there are projects out there that don’t do what they claim to, or perhaps are not as robust as they ought to be.

Here’s how to choose a good carbon offset program

When looking for the right program, here are a few criteria you should apply.

  • Make sure the program has external (third-party) regulation by a trustworthy agency such as Climate Action Reserve, Verified Carbon Standard, Climate, Community, and Biodiversity Standard, Verra, or the American Carbon Registry, along with some environmental groups such as the Rainforest Alliance.
  • Each metric ton offset should have a unique serial number to ensure it can’t be sold over and over again.
  • Look for projects that wouldn’t exist without the carbon offset program.
  • Each project should be transparent and clearly explain how the offset works.
  • There should be a backup plan – in other words, if they plant a tree and it dies, what will replace it?
Icebergs - can be helped by carbon offsetsIceberg are becoming increasingly fragile as a result of pollution and global warming - carbon offsets can help preserve these necessary giants

most popular verified carbon offset programs

These are among the most popular verified carbon offset programs:

You can also use the searchable databases provided by verification agencies like Climate Action Reserve and American Carbon Registry.

For bonus karma points, you could select a project that has humanitarian benefits, like this award winning Cookstove Program in Sudan. Or opt for something meaningful to you personally, like a local project in your home country or in one of your most beloved travel destinations.

how else do you fly green and make air travel cleaner?

Flight shaming is only part of the equation because we don't need to be shamed in order to think about minimizing damage to the environment. Still, some tough decisions need to be made, especially in the coming months, and not only by us.

What about the industry? Shouldn’t they be held accountable?

Yes. And they certainly are – increasingly so!

In 2016, the United Nations came up with a plan entitled the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). A whopping 192 countries voluntarily agreed that any rise in international emissions from 2020 onwards would be offset. 

In addition to this agreement, individual airlines are stepping up their efforts to be sustainable. Carbon offsetting is the equivalent of a guilt-ridden vampire donating blood at a blood bank. How about just not doing the damage in the first place?

It’s not quite so simple, unfortunately. Lower emission biofuels are being developed and electric aircraft may be in our future, but for now, 100 percent sustainability is not possible.

In the meantime, plenty of providers are jumping on board. Many have carbon offset options for passengers, and some are replacing frequent flyer programs with carbon offset rewards. Here are some industry examples of promises made before travel came to a halt in March 2020:

  • JetBlue, Cathay Pacific, Qantas and United have pledged to increase their use of biofuels  
  • JetBlue has even gone as far as promising to become fully carbon neutral by using offsets, alternative fuels, and offering more direct flights.
  • Delta say they will cut air travel co2 emissions by half before 2020 (link above)
  • British Airlines will be carbon neutral on domestic flights.
  • EasyJet had planned to be the first major airline in the world to offer net-zero-carbon flights across its entire network.

While these are laudable examples of the airline industry's efforts to attempt to mitigate the damage done, the post-corona environment will see whether these promises are maintained or dissipate in an effort to claw back lost profits.

How can I fly without guilt?

You can't.

Both studies and experts agree that not flying is the greenest option.

But this is not always practical, particularly if you live in a country that is isolated from the rest of the world. Not everyone has the time, patience, income or inclination to go on an extended cruise from Australia or New Zealand to Europe or North America.

That said, you can minimize the damage in the following ways.

Sleep as you go

If you are traveling in Europe, there may be greener options such as rail travel, one of the most efficient methods of transport.

Even if your time is limited, you might be able to take a sleeper train (or bus) to get where you’re going. No day-time wasted, and you get to wake up in a new destination well rested – in theory, anyway.

Mix business with pleasure

If possible, combine your business trips with your holiday time. Perhaps you can do some research and find a nearby location you’d love to explore that can be reached relatively quickly and easily from your business destination. Ultimately, it will mean one trip less for you – and for the planet.

Make the technology work for you!

Even better, skip the business travel altogether if you can! Video calling and video conferencing are cheap and easy and if nothing else, the lockdowns have taught us that we can do almost anything with Zoom. Do you really need to get on a plane or can the job be accomplished online?

Fly for longer

Longer flights are normally more efficient per kilometer travelled than shorter connecting flights. Takeoff and landing are the least efficient parts of the journey, and planes use less fuel while cruising. If possible, choose a direct flight instead of one with stopovers (and if you do have a stopover, here are some ways to make them less tedious!)

Skip the luxury

It stands to reason that the more people you can fit onto a plane, the more efficient the overall flight per passenger becomes. If you’re taking up a seat in business class or first class that could squeeze two or three extra people in, your emissions will be 3-9 times as high as if you were traveling in economy.

Travel light

The heavier the aircraft, the harder it has to work, which in turn means higher emissions. Learning to travel light and only take carry-on is not only better for the climate, but it helps you be a more carefree, flexible traveler!

Do your research

Compare the different airlines to see which ones are doing the most for the environment.

If you'd like to dive a bit deeper and find out what makes a sustainable airline, Alternative Airlines is a good place to start. The website has a comprehensive list of providers and outlines what each is doing. If you want to take it even further, you can research how efficient the plane is, whether they use single use-plastics, and get into the details of their sustainability practices.

Be a slow traveler

Rather than zipping around the world trying to see as many countries as you can, slow down a little and take it all in. Staying in one or two places for longer can significantly reduce your carbon footprint, as well as helping boost the local economy more meaningfully – not to mention that you'll have more authentic experiences and get off the beaten path a little.

Offset your carbon

Of course, if you’ve exhausted all other options and decided you still need to fly, carbon offsetting is a good idea and can keep your carbon footprint under control. It's not a panacea, but it will help.

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