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Carbon offsets and flying

by Eva Amsen

I’ve been considering buying carbon offsets for my air travel in 2007, as well as for the air travel my mom and sister did to visit me (because if I didn’t live in Canada, they wouldn’t have flown to North America at all). But carbon offsets often seem like just something to patch up your feelings of guilt about polluting. Is it worth it?

Carbon offsets are virtual units of “CO2 equivalents”. They’re sold by a number of companies that let you calculate approximately how much carbon dioxide your activities emit. For air travel you simply enter the start and end destinations of your trip and it returns tons of CO2-equivalents and the cost of offsets for this amount of CO2

The money you pay for carbon offsets goes towards the funding of projects that aim to reduce the same amount of CO2 you so readily emitted with your reckless jet-setting lifestyle. But the CO2 has already been emitted — buying carbon offsets doesn’t take it back. The damage is done. The best thing you can hope to achieve by giving money to offset companies is to support those projects that are most likely to lead to a significant reduction in CO2 in the future.

The David Suzuki Foundation explains the difference between carbon offset projects. They point out some bad types of carbon offsets: tree planting, destruction of halocarbon gases, and projects that would have happened anyway. (Good carbon offsets are additional: they would not have happened without the offset money, so that buying offsets really adds to CO2 reduction.) The projects should be specific, permanent, validated by a third party, not sold to multiple buyers. Offset projects subject to the highest criteria are Gold Standard projects, and the Suzuki Foundation has a

Offset projects subject to the highest criteria are Gold Standard projects, and the Suzuki Foundation has a list of these Gold Standard offset vendors, which I’ll copy here. There are many other companies that sell carbon offsets, but these are the five that have been independently and externally verified for integrity and high quality projects.

Planetair (Canada)
MyClimate (Switzerland)
Sustainable Travel International (USA)
Climate Friendly (Australia)
Atmosfair (Germany)

Now here is why I am still on the fence: I entered one of the flights I wanted to offset on all five sites. I used the Toronto-Raleigh trip I made back in January, because it seemed less variable in terms of route and companies than the transatlantic flights. Now I understand that the cost of different offset projects varies, so it’s no surprise that an offset for this trip varies from $6 to about $20. What is surprising is that the tons of CO2 that this trip would emit varies quite a bit as well. Only MyClimate and Sustainable Travel gave a similar number (0.393 tons and 0.3924 tons). The others calculated 0.42 tons, 0.6 tons, and 0.28 tons for the return trip. So it’s about 0.4 on average, comparing all three, but the difference between 0.6 and 0.28 is ridiculous. That’s more than twice as much.

Some sites – but not all – also want to know if you were flying business class or economy class. I thought it was absurd at first, but it does make sense: they have to divide the plane’s emissions by the number of passengers, and an economy passenger contributes relatively less than a business class passenger, who takes up 1.5 times as much space. (If there were only economy seats, more people would fit and everyone would carry less of the burden.)

Aha, but while thinking about this I found another problem: this entire calculation assumes that there is only one type of plane. This standard plane emits a standard amount of CO2 divided over its standard number of passengers, of which a standard number are paying more money to stretch their legs a bit.
Every time I fly anywhere, my dad (both a professional and amateur airplane enthusiast) wants to know what type of plane I’m in. I don’t really care, as long as I am in it and get to my destination and they give me food, movies and my luggage back. But he’ll get all excited: “The new 767?! What did you think? How was the landing gear? It has the new type of engine! The wing stability is improved! Did you notice it only needs a very short runway?” This is all paraphrased, because, as my dad will happily confirm, I never really listen. What I do understand from all his excitement is that even for the same trip with the same airline company you can end up in greatly different types of planes. I, and many other passengers with me, can only distinguish them by where the movie screen is and whether the table is in the seat in front of you or in your armrest, but I’m sure they have different emission profiles as well. How do the offset companies know I wasn’t in the most eco-friendly plane on all my trips? How do they know what the airlines themselves invest in reducing the emissions of their fleet? Or which airline I flew with? They don’t. They have to make assumptions, which is why the calculated emissions differ per company.

I’m on a plane again this week. I don’t know what type of plane it is, and all I really care about is getting to the same destination as my suitcase (preferably the destination on my ticket). I’m still debating whether or not to pay for guilt-reducing carbon offsets, but the only real solution is, of course, to not fly in the first place.

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Sameer Vasta December 18, 2007 - 12:18 PM

For some of us, not flying in the first place isn’t quite a feasible option. Sadly, most of my clients insist on seeing me in person at least once every two or three months, and with all my clients being in different places in the world, I have to fly quite often during the year.

Sure, I try and be efficient with my traveling (by doing things like visiting my French clients at the same time as my UK clients so I can take a train) but in the end, I have to offset my flying costs: it’s not just a guilt thing for me though. As someone that flies that often, it’s not guilt that drives me in the end, but a sense of duty.

If I was taking just one flight every once in a while, I’d probably forget about offsets, or only do it because I felt guilty. As someone that took over 80 flights last year alone, guilt is no longer a motivation: I’m making a marked and measurable negative impact on the environment, and not doing something about it would be negligent on my part. (Plus, my consultancy company is listed as carbon neutral, so I have to buy offsets to keep that designation.)

Of course, the ideal is to reduce, but there is only so much reduction you can do when you’re in the business of traveling.

PS: I use PlanetAir, and they’re fantastic!

Robbie December 18, 2007 - 7:52 AM

Do I need to buy carbon offsets for breathing?

Being concerned about global warming is reasonable. But feeling guilty about using the incredible technology of the modern age is rather silly.

Enjoy your plane trip and don’t feel that the burdens or the world lie on your shoulders.

Eva December 18, 2007 - 12:04 PM

Well, it’s not just *me*. The whole concept of carbon offsets – the fact that they exist and that people buy them – is based on guilt. And the guilt might be helpful. Feel guilty about driving to work in a car with 3 empty seats? Carpool. Feel guilty about using a ton of plastic bags? Get a reusable bag. I can’t even imagine being concerned about the environment and *not* feeling guilty about things I could have changed. It just comes with being concerned.
And given that many people have these feelings of guilt, I just meant to point out that carbon offsets might not be the best way to go about doing something about it. They’re fine, but I think they should be viewed more as charitable donations than as a way to make good what you feel you did wrong.

Nicolau Werneck December 19, 2007 - 1:00 PM

Burning fuel is not exactly “modern age technology”… In fact, the more you get modern, the less fuel you tend to spend… 🙂

I’m not quite sure the amount of CO2 released in a plane trip is much larger then the amount you release by riding a car in a jammed traffic, for example (big issue here in São Paulo city), or the ammount you would exhale if making the trip riding a bike, and breathing! (or by using a train)

It would be interesting if the companies told you their estimate of the carbon release when you are going to buy the ticket… This cold take in consideration the model of the aircraft, the weather, the trip duration, the time of the day…

Now, I’ve heard that planes are worse then other vehicles because they release other bad gases in the higher atmosphere. I believe those research-funding projects probably deal with this question too…

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