Hot topic: does carbon offsetting really make a difference?

With carbon offsetting making a comeback, is it an effective tool in reducing aviation emissions? Or is it just a distraction from the real issue?

By Anna Melville-James
Published 3 Feb 2023, 07:00 GMT
Carbon offsetting initiatives can involve tree planting.

Carbon offsetting initiatives can involve tree planting.

Photograph by Getty Images

Presented as a way to resolve the tension around flying and environmental responsibility about a decade ago, carbon offsetting was an easy, if often misunderstood, conscience salve. Having since fallen out of the spotlight, its recent resurgence in popularity comes despite greenwashing criticism. With aviation emitting around a billion tons of CO2 per year, more than most countries, can this voluntary consumer measure really make a difference?

How does it work?

The principle of carbon offsetting is simple: compensate for the amount of carbon you’ve put into the atmosphere by flying. In the aviation industry, carbon offsetting happens through compliance at a business level, and individual voluntary action, where consumers can ‘neutralise’ their emissions by investing in carbon reduction projects with a surcharge that can start at as little as £8 per flight. Carbon offsetting projects that trap, remove or store atmospheric carbon (‘sequestration’) range from tree planting to peatland restoration as well as clean cooking projects and renewable energy. Newer initiatives include the ability to purchase sustainable aviation fuel or carbon removal credits for projects that remove CO2 from the atmosphere, an option recently introduced by British Airways.

Why is it making a comeback? 

As the first climate target in 2030 speeds toward us, pressure on airlines is growing. The International Civil Aviation Organization forecasts the number of flights to grow threefold by 2050, the net zero deadline. Airlines, therefore, face the challenge of reducing emissions while accommodating growing demand. In 2022, the UK government announced its Jet Zero Strategy, a plan for achieving net zero aviation by 2050 through technologies and cleaner fuels. 

However, innovation takes time. On the customer-facing side, many airlines have re-embraced or updated their voluntary carbon offsetting to bolster their sustainability strategy — or PR — depending on your perspective. Pragmatism is often employed to explain the status quo. The International Air Transport Association states on its website: ‘There’s no alternative to aviation when it comes to long distance and low carbon travel. Carbon offsetting can therefore be seen as an immediate, direct and pragmatic means to encourage action to limit climate change impacts, at least in the short-term.’ For climate change experts though, short-termism is the fundamental problem.

Does it have any real impact?

Those in favour point to its ability to raise awareness of our environmental impact during travel, but only around 1% of passengers actually offset their carbon. However, the biggest criticism of carbon offsetting is complacency. Those who see it as greenwashing note that calculators on websites can paint different pictures of how much someone might actually need to offset, and claim the overall result is negligible when compared to the changes needed to achieve net zero. 

“We need to make massive reductions in the amount of carbon we emit in the first place. Carbon offsetting is marketed as being able to make you carbon neutral, and it can’t. It’s a device to appease your guilt, without the requirement to do what’s necessary. We felt it was a dangerous distraction from the real task, which is putting less in the atmosphere in the first place,” says Responsible Travel CEO, Justin Francis. As such, he notes, buying sustainable aviation fuel for a proportion of your flight is arguably a more effective, if more expensive, kind of offset.

So, what’s the future of responsible flying?

Last year, EasyJet scrapped its voluntary carbon offsetting in favour of a sustainability programme focused on clean technology investment, while Airbus has announced plans for the first zero-emission aircraft by 2035. However, the figures are clear: only flying less will have the impact needed for net zero. Reducing unnecessary flights and swapping some for train travel can help, but putting the onus on consumer guilt is a corporate red herring, claim critics, who say that taxing aviation fuel and introducing frequent flier levies would have more effect. In the end, the real decision for the passenger will be whether in the current climate the true cost of a flight is too high — whether or not they pay a few extra pounds to plant a tree.  


Published in the March 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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