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What’s the deal with carbon offsetting your flights?

I’ve always wondered what the hell happens when I tick the carbon offset option.

Booking flights online can already be confusing (especially budget airlines with their ridiculous amount of extras) and carbon offset just seems like another unnecessary button to ignore. Sometimes I pay it and sometimes I don’t, but every time I sit there and wonder “What on earth does it mean?”.

I have a vague notion that it means the amount of pollution produced is neutralised by planting trees or something, right? Which sounds great and all, but how do I know that the airlines aren’t just pocketing the money or spending it in ways that don’t actually assist the environment?

So I finally decided to do some research, and figure out whether we’re all being played for fools or whether these carbon offsets are actually worth paying. Now I’m going to share my finds with you and hope that we can all understand carbon offsets a little better!


Is the aviation industry actually bad for the environment?

According to the Air Transport Action Group, flights contribute a whopping 705 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere annually. This is about 2% of ALL man-made carbon emissions!

Choice Magazine have also declared that one long haul flight could cause the same or more greenhouse gas emissions per person than an entire year of home electricity usage, and that the effect of airplanes emitting these gases as such high altitudes could be two to four times higher than other forms of ground transport.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty damn scary to me.

What's the deal with carbon offsetting flights?

How do airlines go about carbon offsetting flights?

Every airline does it differently. The most common way is by estimating the emissions from each flight, and dividing this by the amount of seats they have to get the total per person. This amount is then charged to the customer and the funds are distributed to a third-party company whose purpose is purely to offset carbon emissions through environmental projects.

Sometimes the airlines have their own environmental schemes. Qantas, for example, has a fuel conservation program that’s working towards a massive reduction in fuel emissions.

But some other airlines may have no such policies. The best way to check is to head to the airlines respective websites and check for a section on sustainability, environmental policies, or carbon offsets.

How do carbon offsets work?

The third parties used by many airlines have various ways of offsetting carbon omissions. The funds they receive are most often used for carbon reduction projects that will assist in either soaking up carbon in the atmosphere, or developing cleaner energy so that we emit less carbon in the future.

These projects can include financing renewable energy (wind and hydro power), conservation and forest protection, or installing energy-saving technologies in businesses and homes.

What's the deal with carbon offsetting flights?

Do carbon offsets actually neutralise emissions?

This is never going to be an easy question to answer as carbon offsets can’t be easily measured. For example, if the carbon offset funds have been used to finance clean energy projects, the payoffs may not be seen for another 10 years.

But this is still very valuable investment – if we don’t finance these projects now, then it might be another 20, 30, or 50 years until we get clean energy and all those extra years of carbon emissions will put the environment into pretty bad shape.

It’s fair to say that the carbon offsets are just an estimate of the cost to neutralise emissions, but that doesn’t mean they don’t make a difference. The point is not really about offsetting the exact amount of carbon emitted, but working towards a cleaner and more energy-efficient future.

How much does it cost?

There are calculators such as this one where you can enter your flight path and get an estimate of how much CO2 your seat on the flight will produce. You can then calculate the cost in terms of offsetting the CO2.

It’s not usually a large amount – most domestic flights in Australia only charge a few dollars per flight for carbon offsets. A long haul international flight might be up to $50, but in comparison to what you’ve paid for the flight it seems like almost nothing!

Can you carbon offset your flights when the airline doesn’t offer it?

Absolutely. The third-party companies that airlines use for carbon offsetting will often accept funds from individuals.

I won’t list them as there are loads of choices and it’s probably best to support a company that will benefit your home country, but the best way to find them is to do a web search for ‘carbon offsets’ and see what comes up.

What's the deal with carbon offsetting your flights?

More info

  • The Air Transport Action group has a list of more facts and figures on the effect the aviation industry has on the environment.
  • WWF has this great article detailing more ways that your travel carbon emissions are offset in these schemes.
  • Choice Magazine have put together this list of FAQs about carbon offsetting flights.

What do you think about carbon offsetting your flights? Do you purchase carbon offsets? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.


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Ashlea Wheeler

Blogger & Photographer at A Globe Well Travelled
I'm Ashlea, an excitable Australian who loves photography and exploring the world. Find out more about me.

20 Responses to “What’s the deal with carbon offsetting your flights?”

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Not a problem Tessa, I really didn’t understand it myself which is the reason I went about researching it and compiling the post!

      Reply
  1. May Noradee

    I am one of the passengers who support carbon offseting. I think that it is a good thing that aviation industry try to take responsibility for the amount of environmental damage they cause, which in their case, is currently unavoidable. However, I’m not sure how effective most carbon offsetting schemes really are though, but until there is cleaner source of energy available, this strategy is certainly better than not doing anything at all.

    It is good of you to share this knowledge with your readers though… I think it is important that as many people as possible are aware of the issue of global warming…
    x
    May
    http://www.maynoradeespace.blogspot.co.uk

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      It really is difficult to know how effective the carbon offsetting is, but we know that it’s contributing to a cleaner energy future which is what I think we should all be working towards. The environmental damage from flights is unavoidable, but at least by carbon offsetting it we’re able to do something about it! You’re absolutely right about the importance of sharing this knowledge with others so that they may become aware of the environmental impact of aviation. Thanks for your comment May!

      Reply
  2. Inge

    Thanks for that! I always vaguely thought it was a very good idea, but never really knew how it was worked out by the companies. This gives a very clear idea and I hope a lot of people will start ticking that box now. 🙂

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      That’s exactly the way I’d thought about it too! It was never really explained, so I went about researching what it meant myself. Thanks Inge!

      Reply
  3. Katie @ Second-Hand Hedgehog

    Fascinating post. I’d often wondered what happens when you click that button as well – like you I had a vision of the airline company planting trees. Good to know they’re also thinking long-term as well. Really interesting, and great stuff to know. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Thanks Katie! I really like the fact that they’re investing the money into long-term clean energy projects. If they didn’t do it, then who would?

      Reply
  4. Erika

    Thanks so much for this information! I don’t think I remember seeing anything about carbon offsets the last few times I’ve flown, but I may have just skipped it as I didn’t know what it was. I’m definitely going to look into it in the future, and maybe donate to some of those third-party companies to offset my previous flights!

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Not a problem Erika! Not all airlines display the carbon offset option, I’ve especially noticed it on domestic flights in Australia but I know some international airlines advertise them too. It’s certainly an issue that we should all know more about I think!

      Reply
  5. Franca

    Thanks a lot for this post that finally cleared up some doubts I had on this subject. I’m not a huge fan of flying and I tend to use other transportation options as much as I can even if they are slower and sometimes more expensive. I don’t like the bad impact that flying has on the environment, when I cannot avoid it though carbon offsetting the flight is the best option.

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Not a problem Franca! I’m in the same boat as you with choosing other options over flying when possible, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. Understanding carbon offsetting is truly important for the future environmental impact of aviation!

      Reply
  6. Mumun

    I don’t think I’ve seen an carbon offset box anywhere during my flights, especially in Indonesia. But that’s probably because I didn’t understand, just like the previous comments.

    I’ve always knew travelers are guilty of carbon emissions, but didn’t think it was that bad. Thanks for the numbers, it gave me a really good insight to flying.

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      It seems to be dependant on the airline as to whether they offer carbon offsets, but I would hope that in the future all airlines offer it as an option! I’m glad you found the article insightful Mumun 🙂

      Reply
  7. John Williams

    I used to offset my flights, but after reading the horror stories decided that I could make a bigger impact by lifestyle changes. I notice you quote the 2% carbon dioxide emissions that aviation is responsible for, but fail to mention that aviation’s contribution to global warming is 4.9% due to the oxides of nitrogen released at altitude among other things. You seemed to have missed out the fact that the aviation industry plans to be using 274% of the fuel they used in 2012 in 2050.
    To make an informed decision I would also advise reading:
    The Carbon Neutral Myth: http://www.carbontradewatch.org/pubs/carbon_neutral_myth.pdf

    It’s from a few years back but the problems haven’t gone away:
    World Bank and UN carbon offset scheme ‘complicit’ in genocidal land grabs – NGOs/ http://www.theguardian.com/environment/earth-insight/2014/jul/03/world-bank-un-redd-genocide-land-carbon-grab-sengwer-kenya
    But offsetting does nothing to slow down the consumption of finite fossil fuel reserves. Oil will not run out, but when supply starts to dwindle the cost of producing it will inevitably rise until the world economy tanks again. Flying will be unaffordable to all but the very affluent.
    The documentation backing up this statement is readily available. Just search for ‘Peak Oil Economy’.
    But here is one of the many:
    Former BP geologist: peak oil is here, and it will ‘break economies.’ /http://www.theguardian.com/environment/earth-insight/2013/dec/23/british-petroleum-geologist-peak-oil-break-economy-recession

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Hi John, thanks for your comment. I researched this article very thoroughly and have noted my resources where possible. In the first point, I mentioned that the effect of airplanes emitting these gases as such high altitudes could be two to four times higher than other forms of ground transport. I would advise against relying on the information in the link you’ve provided, as the document was published in 2007 and I’m sure carbon offsetting has developed much further in the past 8 years 🙂

      Reply
      • John Williams

        Hi Ashlea,

        Firstly kudos to you on your vegetarian lifestyle. You are way ahead of most of us as your diet is light on carbon, water, the environment and of course doesn’t harm animals.

        Apologies, you did include the radiative forcing factor, but you only quoted aviation’ s global C02 emissions as 2%, albeit in bold with an exclamation mark, but some maths would have given a more realistic figure instead of leaving the reader to figure. Apologies again a I’ve probably misread your intention as the aviation industry rarely publishes the full extent of their emissions.

        I quoted the Carbon Neutral Myth and said it was from a few years back. It does however give a strong counter argument regarding the benefits of carbon offsetting. It is fully referenced as is indeed your article. However I don’t see much mention of the controversies surrounding carbon offsetting. Even looking up Wikipedia will reveal many problems highlighted by the article I have quoted. NB I also quoted a link from 2014. The film the Carbon Crooks from 2013 is also fairly recent and would make many people think about offsetting and carbon trading. http://carboncrooks.tv/danish-film-lifts-lid-on-crime-of-the-century-co2-trading-scams/.

        To end I will add that ResponsibleTravel.com the largest Responsible Travel company stopped offering carbon offsets in 2009. Look up their site to see why. They are not alone in the Responsible Travel field. Even the Irresponsible Travel Group on Facebook has Carbon Offsetting on the departure board at the top of the page. I don’t expect you to agree with any of the points I have raised, but I feel that you will dig deeper into the subject. I am continually doing so. As I said in my first comment I used to offset once.

        Reply
  8. Emme Luck

    Wow, this is such an informative post. Honestly, I’ve never seen the option for carbon offsetting while booking a flight. Now, I’ll be sure to look out for it and tell all my friends! It is a really great idea as long as it is carried out correctly by the airline. Thanks! – Emme @ Green Global Travel

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      It seems to be less available than I thought, but I really think it should be an option on every single flight booking. There’s definitely some responsibility on the airlines for making it happen, and dealing with it responsibly!

      Reply

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