I love flying – we can get to amazing places so quickly but I’ve really started to worry about the environmental impact that I’m having. I’ve flown a lot this year and I’ll be flying at least twice more before the year is up… I’m definitely feeling guilty about it especially as my work means I have to fly to SE Asia. So, I’ve been trying to figure out the best ways to offset it which has been a little complicated and confusing.
What is carbon footprint?
Carbon footprint is defined as the amount of carbon, usually in tonnes, an individual, organisation, product or event directly or indirectly produces. A person’s carbon footprint depends on their habits and personal choices such as the way you travel, food you eat and amount of electricity you use. Driving a car emits CO2 into the environment whereas walking doesn’t. Many people are becoming more aware of their carbon footprint and would like to reduce it. I try to walk as much as possible and take the train instead of driving when I can. However unlike Greta Thunberg, I don’t think I’ll be able to sail to America any time soon! To get to SE Asia to do my research I have no choice but to fly.
Aircrafts emit CO2 and other greenhouse gases such as nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere contributing to the acceleration of climate change and ocean acidification. Although all greenhouse gases are contributing to climate change, CO2 is the most common and therefore the focus of offsetting. Flying contributes to about 2% of global CO2 production but that’s sure to rise as the industry is rapidly growing. That number doesn’t seems like much but is also very misleading as:
- The total global warming impact of each flight is around twice as high as the CO2 emissions alone due to other types of emissions produced by flying
- It isn’t representative of developed countries that fly more
- The aviation industry as a whole causes more emissions than planes such as through transport of fuel
What is carbon offsetting?
During a flight a certain amount of CO2 will be emitted that can be calculated per person. To compensate for that CO2 produced, you can buy an “offset” that funds a project designed to reduce carbon emissions by the same amount your flight or activity produced. These projects include planting trees or investing in renewable energy. This is supposed to neutralise the effects of the emissions you produced.
What is the best way to carbon offset?
Many people don’t realise that carbon offsetting your flight is an option or are often sceptical about such schemes. I feel a bit sceptical myself. It’s not particularly straight forward at the moment and is still a bit controversial with people arguing that by allowing people to pay to offset their pollution then they will be less likely to alter the behaviour to be more environmentally friendly. There has also been several cases where a invested project has caused more harm than good.
Several airlines state that they have carbon offsetting schemes in place. However many of the largest companies have no such system:
- The world’s biggest airline, American Airline does not offer any offset scheme.
- Emirates do not offer such a system but are participating in an international carbon offset scheme from 2021
- Lufthansa apparently have a carbon offsetting scheme but uptake is less than 1% of passengers and although after an enquiry by the BBC the company said they would make the option more visible to customers I could not find any option to carbon offset before paying for a flight.
- British Airways do not have a scheme but just give customers the opportunity to donate to a charity that aims to create low carbon communities. I tried this out but the CO2 emissions from your flight are not calculated and you can only donate small amounts. For example a return flight from London to Phnom Penh I could only donate up to £6 (see below).
The consensus is that the best way to carbon offset is to donate to projects yourself.
Which project to invest in?
People often think that carbon offsetting means planting trees. Forests use CO2 for photosynthesis and therefore “take away” the CO2 you produced by flying. However it has attracted a huge amount of criticism mainly due to permanence. Trees generally only temporarily store CO2 as there is no guarantee they are not going to be cut down. With growing pressures on land resources, ensuring trees remain is getting harder and harder. There have also been situations where planting forests for carbon offsetting has caused local communities to be evicted from their homes. One particular case saw 22,000 Ugandan people evicted from their homes to make way for carbon offsetting trees, established by a London-based firm called New Forests Company (NFC).
As tree planting has become so disgraced as a carbon offsetting project, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation projects or REDD projects have become more popular. Yet you must be careful with these projects too as the causes of deforestation are often complex social issues and may target poorer communities needing resources rather than global companies making profits from cutting forests down.
Other projects invest in producing renewable technology and more energy efficient products and often have benefits in developing countries and may be more appropriate. It is therefore important that the project you choose to invest in has quality standards.
The most recommended standard to go by in the Gold Standard aimed to ensure the most positive impact for climate offsetting and other projects, and certifies about 19% of global offsets. Their website allows you to choose from a huge variety of projects to carbon offset, although doesn’t have its own calculator but provide links to some. They also have serval partners who run Gold Standard certified projects including ClimateCare (UK) and MyClimate (Switzerland).
Using MyClimate I calculated how much emissions I produced flying to Sweden from London. It calculated my emissions to be 0.443 tonnes for the roundtrip and gave me a list of projects I can choose to offset with a price range of £9-£30. Flying to Phnom Penh from London via Bangkok produces 3.4 tonnes costing a minimum of £74 to offset. It is also important to note that good calculators also let you choose your class, as economy will produce less CO2 than first class as more people fit in economy!
MyClimate also compares your calculated carbon footprint to the average annual amount of CO2 generated by someone in the EU and the amount needed to stop climate change (see below). Pretty sobering seeing the numbers next to each other…
Atmosfair also have a really good emissions calculator that lets you choose which aircraft you went on. It also calculated London to Sweden emits 0.431 tonnes of CO2 . However it doesn’t let you choose which project you are investing in it just gives you a price, which was 10 euros for that flight.
Is it worth carbon offsetting?
I still feel a bit uncertain about carbon offsetting, probably because I don’t know anyone who has done it and no one really talks about it! It’s definitely better to fly and carbon offset than to fly and do nothing at all. However you should take the promised carbon offset with a pinch of salt as it isn’t guaranteed that exact amounts of emissions will be cut. The best thing to do is reduce your carbon footprint as much as possible and try to avoid flying if you can.
I think it’s a really good concept and I’m probably going to invest in a carbon offsetting project due to all the long haul flights I will have to do in the next few years. It’s hard not to feel guilty but I don’t regret going on those flights. I don’t have much money at the moment (PhD student!) so I probably wont be able to offset all my flights but I hope to more in the future. I will also continue to do lots of other things to reduce my carbon footprint as much as possible.
Other ways to reduce your carbon footprint
- Drive less – try to walk, cycle or take the train or bus more often.
- Use the train or bus instead of short-haul flights – It takes the most energy to take off and land so short flights under 500km are extremely polluting, such as going to Europe from the UK. Try to take the train or bus if possible.
- Use a more environmentally friendly energy provider, such as Octopus energy (which is what we use), who use 100% renewable energy.
- Buy second-hand clothes –The fashion industry contributes a vast amount to carbon emissions (second only to oil) as well as having a huge freshwater consumption, poor working conditions and pay for staff, use of toxic chemicals and release of microplastic fibres. Buying second hand displaces the purchase of a new item and saves on resources, emissions and waste!
- Have a more plant-based diet – A recent document prepared by scientists for the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), stated that a high consumption of meat and dairy by the West is pushing climate change and that switching to a plant-based diet can help diminish this. The greenhouse gases produced by livestock is a major contributor to global emissions ranging from around 18% for the UK and up to 31% in the EU. I’m not telling you to become vegan or vegetarian, but cutting down on meat and dairy can really help. More people can be fed by using less land if individuals cut down on meat, saving resources. We’re also wasting too much food with greenhouse gas emissions associated with food loss accounting for 8-10% of all global emissions.