Offsetting your “flight shame”? Here’s what you need to know

With airplane pollution set to triple by mid-century, guilty flyers are scooping up carbon offsets – but not all offsets are created equal

Watershed Sentinel Staff

abandoned airplane in Iceland | photo (CC BY 4.0) via fshoq.com

Greta Thunberg’s trans-Atlantic yacht voyage, to avoid air travel to the UN Climate Action Summit in September in New York, was largely symbolic. But the effects of that symbolism have proven real enough to shift the behaviour of air travellers, startle the aviation industry, and prompt a bonanza in carbon offset sales.

Flygskam, or “flight shaming” translated from its native Swedish, is a movement prodding travellers to abstain from flying by pointing out the huge personal emissions associated with air travel. And it’s working. In a survey this summer of more than 6000 air travellers, one in five said they cut one flight or more in the past year over climate concerns, the BBC reports.

If the trend continues, the survey suggests that the anticipated growth in passenger numbers could be cut in half. The survey was conducted by Swiss Bank UBS and polled air travellers from the US, UK, France, and Germany.

The aviation sector has taken notice. In November, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), an industry trade group representing 290 airlines, which make up 82% of total air traffic, said it will launch a campaign to communicate the industry’s climate efforts and counter what it calls “misleading information.”

Although emissions from aviation are smaller than from fossil power plants or road transport, they are rising fast. In the last five years, carbon pollution from flying rose 32%, to hit 2.4% of global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use, according to analysis by the International Council on Clean Transportation. That rate of growth is 70% higher than projected by the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which itself forecasts pollution from aviation to roughly triple by mid-century in a business-as-usual scenario.

Carbon offsets are contentious. Critics say that by purchasing them, polluters buy their way out of making real changes to their carbon footprints, and reduce pressure to address those same footprints.

The rise is despite ongoing increases in airplane efficiency and efforts to blend biofuel with aviation fuels. The ICAO says to go all in on “sustainable aviation fuels,” with a corresponding 63% reduction in emissions, would require efforts that “significantly exceed historical precedent for other fuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel for road transportation.”

It’s all because of demand. A 2016 forecast from IATA (before the rise of flight shaming) expects 7.2 billion air passengers will take to the skies in 2035, a near doubling of the 3.8 billion who did so in 2016. The growth is attributed to rising incomes in Asia and Africa, cheaper flights, and a wave of working age travellers eager to globe-trot.

But voluntary carbon offsets for air travel are also soaring. The Guardian reported in November that sales of the offsets to people concerned about their carbon footprints have seen “massive spikes.” In some cases sales have quadrupled or more in the last 18 months.

Offset Upset

Voluntary carbon offsets are credits for greenhouse gas reductions by another party, purchased by an individual, business, or organization, to cancel out their emissions. The projects are mostly in the developing world, and money paid for the credits could go toward a solar project in India, to purchase clean-burning cook stoves in Myanmar, or plant and protect trees in Mali.

The definition of “unavoidable” is malleable – from “important” business, to visiting relatives, or just because the kids won’t stop talking about Disneyland.

Carbon offsets are contentious. Critics say that by purchasing them, polluters buy their way out of making real changes to their carbon footprints, and reduce pressure to address those same footprints. As Guardian columnist George Monbiot wrote in “Selling Indulgences” in 2006, “Our guilty consciences appeased, we can continue to fill up our SUVs and fly round the world without the least concern about our impact on the planet.”

Proponents see it differently. While offsets are secondary to reducing fossil fuel use, what matters for the individual is the result relative to the alternative. For travellers taking a flight they consider unavoidable (and the definition of “unavoidable” is malleable – from “important” business, to visiting relatives, or just because the kids won’t stop talking about Disneyland), purchasing offsets results in a better outcome than not purchasing them, regardless of larger philosophical questions.

The Gold Standard

For those in the latter camp – feeling guilty but not willing to not fly – it is important to buy offsets that meet the requirements of recognized third-party standards organizations. These groups audit and verify carbon offset projects to protect consumers in a largely unregulated market. The most prominent is The Gold Standard, founded to ensure carbon offsets adhere to the “highest levels of environmental integrity.” The organization is backed by around 80 ENGOs, including the World Wildlife Foundation and David Suzuki Foundation.

The Gold Standard and other third-party standards assess carbon credit programs on many factors, including:

Additionality: The measure of whether or not a carbon offset project would happen without the funding from the sale of the credits. If the funding is extraneous to the success of an emissions reduction project, there is no net benefit from purchasing the offsets.

Permanence: If offsets are purchased to, say, protect an area of old growth forest that is absorbing and sequestering carbon, that works. But if the plot is razed for cattle ranching a decade later, the offsets are rendered worthless.

Leakage: Carbon leakage occurs when a carbon-cutting project ends up producing emissions outside the project. For example, a project to reforest farmland could result in farmers clearing more forest to grow crops.

Tree planting, and Reduced Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) projects, which sell credits for protecting existing carbon stocks, are vulnerable to the above factors. Some REDD offset projects, critics say, are worse than nothing at all. Defenders maintain that although the programs aren’t perfect, they are a start in preserving intact jungle in places like Brazil, when rich nations won’t fund forest protection without getting something out of the deal.

Offsets can be purchased directly from The Gold Standard, or often through airline websites, complete with an air travel carbon calculator. Air Canada offers offsets in partnership with Less, a subsidiary of Bullfrog Power. They are backed by The Gold Standard or the Canadian Standards Association. Westjet’s offerings are sold through Carbonzero, a longstanding Canadian vendor that deals mainly in Canadian afforestation projects.

The easiest and cheapest way to cut air travel emissions, of course, is to stay on the ground.

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