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The Beginner’s Guide to Carbon Offsetting Flights

Offsetting. Everybody’s at it! Travel companies have said offsetting is how we can keep flying without destroying our planet. Lyft is advertising ‘carbon-free’ rides by offsetting the emissions from their rides. Some Scandinavian countries even want to completely offset their emissions. But what is carbon offsetting and does it work? This guide will explain exactly how to carbon offset your flights. 

As budget adventurers and travel writers, we’re guilty of taking flights too often and we feel bad about it. It’s not always easy to avoid planes. We work full-time jobs outside of travel so taking lots of time away from work isn’t always a possibility. The rise in budget airlines means flying is usually the cheapest and quickest option. The rise in budget airlines also makes short-haul air travel a more budget-friendly and convenient option, with weekend city hops across Europe on the rise. 

We worry about the negative environmental impact of flying every time we jump on board a plane. But sometimes there’s not always a more eco-friendly option, especially for flying long distance. Our excitement for new experiences soon replaces the concern for our climate.

Feeling guilty about carbon emissions is only useful if it leads to action. It’s time for us to be more conscious about how many flights we take and look into alternative ways of travelling. Here’s what we found out about how to carbon offset your flights. We have a post on alternative ways of travelling coming soon!

Is flying really that bad?

Air travel is one of most carbon intensive forms of transport. Flights alone account for 2.5% of the world’s carbon emissions. Adding in the other harmful gases and the water vapour produced by planes holds the aviation industry accountable for around 5% of emissions.

A return flight from Paris to New York generates the same level of emissions as the average European spends heating their home per year. Planning on going vegan or cycling to work for a whole year to offset the carbon  you produce from flying? This one flight would generate more emissions than any major lifestyle change we could make. Looks like we’re walking home…
Despite this obvious contribution to global warming, the industry is continuing to expand rapidly to meet the growing demand for international travel.
Flying is a luxury. Yes, land transport accounts for 10% of the world’s carbon emissions, but we rarely travel these vast distances overlandMost people on the planet have never set foot in the air, relying instead on land transport. If flights didn’t exist, a business person wouldn’t drive from London to Leeds for a meeting, they’d make a video call. And the graduate flying to Southeast Asia for the obligatory ‘gap-year’ trip might consider exploring closer to home. Flying is a luxury but it’s a luxury the planet can’t afford.
chart created with amCharts | amCharts

Is anything being done to improve the carbon footprint of flights?

Well, yes. New, sustainable technologies like biofuels and electric planes are in the pipeline but they’re not coming as fast as we need them. We’re decades away from this technology being adopted into routine use. These are decades the planet can’t afford.
But wait there’s a glimmer of hope! A newly introduced Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) demands that participating countries limit their carbon emissions to a predetermined amount. They’ve set the limit at the average of 2019-2020 levels. Fortunately, the effects of the coronavirus pandemic have reduced this year’s emissions (yay!). As of September 2020, it’s unclear whether these covid-adjusted values will be used. We hope they are. 
To remain under this limit, airlines can choose how to cut their emissions. They can use sustainable fuels and fly more efficient aircraft. Emerging technology can limit the carbon emissions per flight. Companies can also invest in sustainable carbon-offsetting projects.
This sounds positive but the scheme has been heavily criticised. Most companies simply want to invest in offsetting schemes rather than directly reducing their emissions. In addition to this, the scheme aims only to tackle the ‘increase in emissions’ rather than the total emissions produced by flying. For the first seven years, it is also not mandatory for countries to participate. What’s the point, right?

What are carbon offset schemes?

Travellers can reduce their impact on the environment through carbon offsetting flights.
Carbon offset schemes are environmental projects around the world that aim to reduce CO2 emissions. Individuals and companies can make voluntary contributions to these schemes to balance out their carbon footprints. The projects are usually based in developing countries. They help to combat global climate change through eco- and community-based activities ranging from planting trees to clean energy projects.
Most people choose to carbon offset flights but you can invest in these schemes to offset any carbon emissions! Unfortunately, many passengers are not aware of carbon offsetting schemes. Many are also dubious about how the schemes work, which are worthwhile, and how their money helps.

How does carbon offsetting work?

Aircraft engines produce greenhouses gases, particles and water vapour and release them into the atmosphere, causing the Earth to heat up. Carbon offsetting doesn’t get rid of the carbon dioxide produced when you fly – that still goes into the atmosphere.
What it does do is try and make up for your share of the CO2 which gets released. Individuals can make donations to projects that reduce CO2 somewhere else instead, therefore slowing down the global rise of CO2 levels. You can calculate how much CO2 is produced per passenger on your flight using an online calculator and make voluntary contributions to a project that will reduce the carbon by the same amount.

How are carbon offset values calculated?

Programmes calculate carbon offset values based on the CO2 emissions caused per passenger on a given flight.
These estimates can be calculated most basically using the number of miles flown. A more accurate estimate would take into account whether you travel first-class or economy class, the number of passengers, the model of plane and how full the plane was. 
This still doesn’t produce a 100% correct value. For that, you’d need to include values for wind conditions, flight path, any diversions and extra freight carreid. However, this is beyond the estimating capabilities of most individuals. 
You can calculate your carbon emissions per flight with an online calculator. We find that myclimate is a great way to roughly calculate the emissions of your flight with the bare minimum of details

How can we offset carbon emissions from flights?

It’s easy to carbon offset your flights independently or with your airline. Read on for everything you need to know about both methods. 

Carbon offsetting with your airline

The easiest option is to offset directly with the airline. Many airlines offer carbon offsets, which is as simple as checking a box when you book your flight. You pay a little extra for your flight and this fee goes to a pre-selected carbon offset organisation.
This may be easy but it’s not always the best option. Airlines are not always transparent about exactly where your offset money is being invested. Therefore, it’s important to investigate the airline’s website to see if their carbon offset schemes are worthwhile. You can look at how offsets are calculated, what type of projects your contribution will fund and whether they are certified by a verified scheme. You may discover that in fact, you’re better investing your money into a more worthwhile cause. If so, read on…

Carbon offsetting independently

Some airlines don’t offer offsets. Or, you might want to offset a flight you’ve already paid for. Maybe you have strong feelings about the type of project you’d like to support? If so, it’s usually best to offset directly.
This is as simple as calculating the emissions from your flight and donating to a carbon offset program of your choice
There are so many projects to donate to, but it’s important to choose a genuine one. Gold Standard is a Swiss non-profit organisation which was founded by a the WWF and other environmental bodies. They certify carbon offset projects in developing countries which focus on reducing CO2 and encouraging sustainable development – can’t be a bad thing, right? 
What if want to donate to a scheme closer to home? Click on any of the bullets below to check out other credible offset options: 

Are carbon offset schemes expensive?

Surprisingly not! I was initially put off by the idea of carbon offsetting because I had assumed it would be more expensive that it is.
Costs vary between organisations and projects. You can expect to contribute £6-12 per tonne of CO2 you want to offset. To give you an idea, a return flight from Edinburgh to Stuttgart releases 0.48 tonnes of CO2 and would cost around £3 to offset. A return flight from London to Hong Kong releases 3.1 tonnes and would cost approximately £20 to offset.
It’s hard to believe such a tiny fraction of the flight cost could be enough to massively reduce the impact of your travel!

Are carbon offset schemes worthwhile?

Carbon offset schemes are heavily criticised for a variety of reasons, but these can be summed up in three points.

1. They don't address the root of the problem

Firstly, they allow people to reduce their guilt rather than taking direct action to reduce their flights. Paying a ‘tax’ for the pollution we cause by taking flights has not given any evidence of people changing their behaviour and reducing the number of flights they take.

2. The achievements of schemes are not instantly visible

Secondly, it can be difficult to calculate the exact achievements of the carbon offsets. Many schemes have indirect or long-term impacts that can be hard to measure. They may require an ongoing commitment to education and implementation of cleaner energy in communities.

3. They have the potential to be a scam

Lastly, supporting the wrong schemes can leave the traveller feeling ‘scammed’. For example, Offset certificates have been provided for millions of trees that were never actually planted.
Even if a project actually exists, the offsets have the potential to go wrong in other ways. You could donate to a project to help pay for a new wind farm, but then you learn that they were going to build it anyway, regardless of offset contributions. Or a forest planted by carbon offset donations might be felled years later.
To avoid situations like this, make sure you check the credibility of the scheme you are donating to. For example, the credible carbon offset program above.
To avoid situations like this, make sure you check the credibility of the scheme you are donating to. You can start by looking into a credible carbon offset program like those above.
So, are carbon offset schemes worthwhile? Reducing the number of flights you take is the best answer to the problem. But sometimes flying is unavoidable. If you are going to or have to fly, then it’s a much better option to donate to carbon offset schemes instead of doing nothing
These schemes often also help communities in developing countries. You can offset your carbon emissions with a social project that promotes sustainable development which is never a bad thing.

How else can we reduce our carbon footprint when travelling?

The flight shame movement is gaining momentum and causing many to begin feeling accountable for their carbon footprint.
‘Shame’ is a strong word, but this is less about shaming other people than challenging our own travel patterns. We can reduce our carbon emissions by considering alternative ways of travel and changing our habits once we arrive. 
Not flying doesn’t mean not travelling. Many are embracing slow travel, revelling in the enjoyment of slow, deliberate journeys that are not possible with aviation
This growing movement of resistance to aviation has reinvigorated rail travel. Some are rediscovering the attraction of night trains, travelling between cities using long distance bus, or embracing bike tours.
These journeys can be incredibly rewarding, opening your eyes to the culture of a country through conversations and experiences with locals
Anyone who knows me knows that I love a good book. Travel writer, Monisha Rajesh, is an advocate for slow travel. She has ventured 45’000 miles around the world using mostly rail. 
She has narrated her adventures through two books, both of which will make you want to swap your planes for trains immediately. I really recommend these books to anyone that is dubious about the wonders of slow travel.

Is offsetting actually enough? Here we share an updated article with more information about the pros and cons of offsetting, plus actions you can take to further reduce your impact. 

Do you carbon offset your flights? We’d love to learn more about how other travellers travel more carbon neutral. Share your opinions in the comments section below or drop us an email here.

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Alice is a UK travel blogger who advocates sustainable travel and being more eco-conscious on a budget. She loves coffee, her houseplants and summiting mountains.

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