Is Carbon Offsetting a scam, or the least you can do to make your travel more sustainable?
EDIT: It’s been pointed out that it may sound like I’m against carbon offsetting below (thank you to the wonderful blogger who raised the issue!) That’s absolutely not that point that I’m trying to make. I’m definitely all for people donating to any (and every!) environmental cause and there is definitely value in the causes that carbon offsetting support, but I think letting airlines get away with greenwashing their image means that we’re not holding them accountable to finding better alternatives. If carbon offsetting continues to be misleadingly presented by airlines as a perfect solution, then travelers are left thinking that they’ve counteracted the damage their travel is causing and don’t call for further measures. That’s not fair when they’re totally trying to do the right thing! All of that CO2 continues to be pumped into the atmosphere at ever-increasing rates with no consequences for the airlines who are responsible for it, because they’re hiding behind carbon offsetting (Can you tell that this gets my blood boiling?! 😂)
It’s time to talk about Carbon!
As I write this post, I’m at the tail end of a 22 hour flight from Australia, across the continent of Africa, and allll the way to London. I’ve been planning this trip for seven months, and to actually be a mere 55 minutes from starting my three weeks of adventure seems so surreal.
While I’m still in awe that I can literally travel to the other side of the world in the space of a day whilst simultaneously binging old movies and being fed meal after meal in my seat, it’s hard to ignore the fact that this flight is probably the greatest carbon damage I’m going to do this year – literally creating a greater impact than my other 364 days of daily living. You could argue that by deciding to fly, I’ve instantly undone all of the other efforts I’ve been making in just one day.
Why are carbon emissions so bad?
For complete science amateurs (like me), here’s a crash course. Carbon is one of the building blocks of our world. It’s the second most abundant element in the human body and the universe as we know it wouldn’t exist without it- everything from diamonds to graphite to the air we breathe contains carbon!
So if it’s such a natural occurrence, what’s all the fuss about?
I’ll be honest, this took some researching to wrap my head around. The issue is that the carbon being produced from my flight doesn’t actually belong in the atmosphere. Until someone dragged it out of the earth, processed it, and fed it into my plane, that carbon had been safely locked away in a solid form – effectively removed from the carbon cycle. Like adding too much salt to a dish, adding too much carbon back into the atmosphere just creates a hot mess. Instead of protecting us from the heat of the sun, a carbon-heavy atmosphere starts bouncing that heat around. If you want to continue with the cooking metaphors, think of it as boiling water with the pot-lid on – all of that pent-up heat has nowhere to go, so the temperature starts rising.
What is Carbon Offsetting?
If you’ve booked a flight recently, you would probably have been offered the option to ‘Carbon Offset’ your flight. You might have ticked it, you may have not. But what does Carbon Offsetting even mean?
Carbon offsetting is usually undertaken by airlines in one of two areas – either land based projects (like planting trees) or energy efficiency projects (like investing in renewable energy).
Some airlines may also have an internal carbon offsetting program above and beyond any voluntary offsetting being offered to customers. Emirates, for example, believe that the responsibility to offset carbon rests solely with the airline, and have a number of practices in place to do so.
As a consumer, you can generally choose to offset through the airline program (the cost of this will usually vary depending on the route you’re taking), or you can choose to offset yourself using an independent company like MyClimate or Green Fleet. In my experience, independent companies tend to calculate a little more generously than airline programs, which I suspect means that they’re slightly more accurate.
The problem with Carbon Offsetting
Well all of this offsetting sounds great! So what’s the problem?
- Burning fossil fuels (like in a plane) isn’t just moving around carbon in our atmosphere- it’s actually reintroducing carbon that’s effectively been out of the game for millennia, tucked safely underground. According to Professor Will Steffen from the Climate Council, land-based carbon offsetting just doesn’t cut it when it comes to tackling all of that new carbon being added back into the carbon cycle.
Taking up carbon into land systems simply means we are putting back some of the carbon that was earlier transferred from land to the atmosphere. We are not reducing any of the new carbon added through burning fossil fuels such as aviation fuels.” – Steffen
- People aren’t always willing to do it. I mean, c’mon. Did you think those few extra dollars at checkout was really going to make any difference? It’s probably just the airline hawking for a few extra bucks, right? In fact, less than 1 in 10 passengers voluntarily ‘offsets’ their flying.
- It’s a bandaid solution. While investing money in land based projects and environmental research is a good thing, these projects aren’t enough to counter the 895 million tonnes of CO2 released by flights each year.
- Choosing to carbon offset can create a sense of complacency – it certainly sounds like you’re cancelling out the damage you’re doing by flying, so choosing to fly more can’t be that bad, can it? Guilt be gone! And if airlines have created the illusion that they can just ‘cancel out’ the carbon they’re using, then there’s less incentive to work towards alternative fuel sources in the aviation industry.
All of these can create problems of their own, and undermine any efforts being made to counteract the environmental impact of flying.
Other ways to reduce your Carbon Footprint when flying
So all is lost, then? While flying might be a massive addition to your carbon footprint and carbon offsetting might not be exactly all it’s cut out to be, there are still a few things you can do to try and reduce your carbon footprint on your next flight.
Pick the shortest possible route
Less time in the air = less fuel used = less carbon produced. Huzzah!
Minimise your take-offs and landings
Getting that massive hunk of metal you’re travelling in safely off & on to the ground obviously takes more fuel than hanging out at cruising level. Because of this, flights with lots of stops will create a much larger carbon footprint (as well as usually being more expensive!). Travel as directly as possible to avoid both of these
You’re not being cheap, you’re being environmental! More people in the same area mean that travelling in economy creates a stunning three times less than travelling in business!
Choose newer jets where possible
Newer jets are generally more fuel efficient than their older counterparts and will generally get you more bang for your carbon buck. Choosing low-perk airlines can also help decrease the overall weight of the plane (those seat-back TVs and inflight meals really add up). The lighter the plane, the less fuel it requires to get from A to B, and the less carbon it’s going to produce.
Alternate long-distance travel with destinations close to home
Sure, new and exotic destinations are exciting. But when was the last time you explored in your own neighbourhood? Visiting destinations in your own back yard means that you won’t need to fly at all! And choosing a form of ground-based transport like a train or a bus is only going to reduce that carbon footprint even further.
And on that note:
Choose alternative travel options where possible
Sure, you might spend less time in the air when you choose to fly, but have you looked at your other options? Depending on where you’re going, choosing to take a train or a bus is not only the more environmentally sound option, it can also make for a cheaper and more pleasant journey. Goodbye, airport queues!