Planting a tree in the soil

What Is Carbon Offsetting and Does it Actually Work?

For people who love travelling, but are anxious about the environmental impact of flying, carbon offsetting might sound like a perfect solution. We examine the facts

Wanderlust for far-flung destinations comes with a caveat: flying is bad for the planet. In fact it’s one of the biggest offenders for carbon emissions, with aviation accounting for upwards of two percent of CO2 emissions globally. To put this in a bit more context, a return flight from London to Bali emits close to four tonnes of CO2; around the same as the average person emits per year in Mexico, for example. When you put it like that, it’s a pretty bitter pill for any environmentally-conscious travel-lover to swallow. 

To reduce emissions and get back on to the trajectory of capping warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures (the point at which the consequences of global warming get a whole lot more extreme), global emissions have to reduce by 7.6% every year to 2030, according to the UN. Considering emissions have been rising by 1.5 percent every year for the last decade, it doesn’t take an expert to work out that things aren’t looking too good.

So how is the aviation industry, which—as we have established—is a rather big cog in the climate crisis wheel, planning to tackle this? CORSIA, the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, has committed to stabilise net CO2 emissions at 2020 levels and says the sector is committed to reducing its net CO2 emissions to half of what they were in 2005 by 2050. 

In the more immediate term, airlines including Delta and easyJet are looking to carbon offsetting: compensating for the amount of CO2 that’s emitted by funding projects that are designed to make equivalent reductions of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This, in theory, ‘neutralises’ your emissions. Global schemes typically include planting trees, protecting forests and wind, solar and community projects. You could argue that it’s a little like calorie counting: if you work off that lunchtime burger at the gym you can, in theory, cancel out the calories (or, at least, tell yourself that). 

Carbon offsetting - the controversy

The problem with carbon offsetting is that it deals with a whole lot of variables. By paying to plant trees to offset a flight you have just taken does not immediately ‘balance’ your carbon footprint. Firstly, they don’t grow fast enough to catch up with the looming carbon reduction deadlines. Secondly, it doesn’t reduce the amount of carbon, just theoretically balances the books. 

The practice has been described as a “wild west” by critics, including Andrew Ross Sorkin, a financial columnist for The New York Times. “Sometimes they do invest in planting a forest, but then a forest is razed a year later… It’s a financial construct, it’s not a change,” he said in a recent podcast. It can also seem like a greenwashing scheme; a get out of jail free card for businesses who like to show that they are helping combat climate change, whilst still relying on fossil fuels and pumping out the same amount of greenhouse gases.

The terms—‘offsetting’ and ‘carbon neutral’—imply our emissions are somehow magically cancelled out

Justin Francis, founder and CEO of activist company, Responsible Travel says: As an industry, we need to be responsible with the language we use, and honest with consumers about the impacts of their travel. These terms—‘offsetting’ and ‘carbon neutral’—imply our emissions are somehow magically cancelled out. 

“That’s quite irresponsible marketing, because not only is it untrue, it emboldens us to fly more, and if we care at all about the climate, that’s growth we can’t afford. Our emissions accumulate and can stay in the atmosphere for thousands of years—and they begin heating immediately. Offsets don’t cancel that out. 

“People ask, very reasonably, ‘well, isn’t offsetting a good thing to do anyway?’ Well, planting trees is wonderful and we should be doing far more of that anyway. But it’s not a replacement to flying less and should not be labelled offsetting or carbon neutral. It’s about reduction, not offsetting.”

'The last mile' for cutting emissions

According to Niklas Hagelberg, Senior Programme Officer at UN Environment, carbon offsetting should be seen as the “last mile”, after businesses across sectors and across the board have already made significant efforts to reduce their emissions. 

“It’s important that companies first of all assess where their emissions take place and then if they make a commitment to carbon neutrality, they should make these details public and report on it. It’s very easy to say that ‘we’re going to be carbon neutral’ and then just buy the offsets somewhere else. It’s not the full transition that we need, as by 2050 everything needs to be more or less carbon neutral,” he says. 

“If it is our personal lives, it could be switch all your lights to LED energy efficient lighting, switch your contract renewable energy, start taking public transportation, shift your food intake towards plant-based food and so forth.”

So should we stop flying altogether?

The Swedish—led by the seventeen-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg—appear to be spearheading the no-flying pack and have even coined a word for it, "flygskam" or "flight shame". It’s clear that flying less, or not at all, is going to make a huge difference to global emissions. However, the thought of never lying on a tropical beach again, or exploring a new destination and culture, is enough to make most travel-lovers break out in a cold sweat. 

Travelling opens our eyes to so much more of the world, it makes us more curious, more respectful of other cultures and, frankly, a lot more interesting (not to mention less stressed). And what about all the people with family members or colleagues spread out across the globe? According to Francis, fewer trips for longer periods is one achievable solution, as well as cutting down on the frequent flyers. (It’s 2020, we really don’t need to fly halfway across the world for a meeting.) 

“The majority of flights are taken by a minority of frequent flyers. Jetting off on regular short haul trips is unsustainable. Take fewer, longer, trips. If you’re going to fly, try to limit that to once a year and really make it count when you do: extend that break, it’ll be good for you, and you’ll give more back to a local community. It’s really a return to how we used to holiday – one long holiday a year, punctuated by short breaks close to home,” says Francis.

Greta Thunberg on a sailing yacht

Activist Greta Thunberg opted to sail to New York to attend the UN Climate Action Summit in 2019 instead of fly. Credit GETTY / BEN STANSALL

What more needs to be done?

Clearly we can, and should, fly less. We can carbon offset all our flights. But there’s a lot more that needs to change, particularly economically. There’s something seriously wrong when you’re paying close to £50 for a train ticket from London to Leeds, when you can get to Paris for £20 with a low cost airline. 

“Many people don’t realise that aviation fuel is still exempt from tax and VAT,” says Francis.  These are tax breaks to the tune of billions, which keep the cost of flying artificially low. The polluter pays principle must be applied and, crucially, this is revenue that must be ring-fenced for research investment into greener technologies.

“We [at Responsible Travel] have also been pressing for a Green Flying Duty. It’s our term for an increased Air Passenger Duty (APD) but also with revenue used for research and development into cleaner aviation. This should include a higher rate for domestic flights—and for business and first class, to account for their weightier and more polluting load. It’ll reduce demand, increase investment in necessary technologies and it’s quick to apply.”

Hagelberg says that airlines need to reduce their emissions in two ways: by improving efficiency—route planning and ensuring planes are as full as possible—and fleet upgrades. New fuel sources, substitutes and electric planes are all alternatives that could make a huge difference. 

“We're still a long way from having the long haul flights moving over to electricity or hydrogen. But there are interesting developments and some exciting progress,” Hagelberg says, citing an Israeli company, Eviation, that has launched electric planes and another that is testing hydrogen flights.

Hagelberg finishes our call by sending me photos of a New York street: the first shows horses and carts, the second—taken 13 years later—shows the same street packed with cars, without a horse in sight. We live in a world where technology changes in the blink of an eye, and if the right decisions are made —we can change it for the better just as quickly.