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The traveller’s guide to carbon offsetting your flights

The travellers’ guide to carbon offsetting your flights

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with air travel. I love the places flying takes me, but I’m not a fan of the actual plane bit. But as well worrying about whether we’re going to crash, I’ve started worrying more about the environmental impact of flying, and especially the way it contributes to climate change. Flights account for around 2.5% of global carbon dioxide production at the moment, but the industry’s growing rapidly. And because planes fly high the atmosphere, the greenhouse gases they emit do more damage than on the ground.

New technologies like biofuels or electric planes are in the pipeline which could reduce flying’s environmental impact. But they’re a huge investment and need years of safety testing, so it’s a slow process. Until then airlines are trying to increase efficiency by reducing weight, carrying more passengers, using tailwinds and reducing distances through air traffic control (though cynics might say that’s more about saving money than the environment).

Regulations are starting to put pressure on airlines to reduce their impact, but the rising demand for flights is outstripping any reduction in emissions. There’s a crazy statistic that only 6% of the world’s population has ever flown, so there’s huge potential growth out there. I’m trying to cut down on flights and take the train where I can, but there are so many places I’d love to visit where I’ve got no choice but to fly. So is there anything we can do?

Read more: Cruise travel: How to minimise your environmental impact

Plane flying above skyscrapers

Flying high

Carbon offsetting your flights

One of the ways it’s been suggested air travellers can reduce the impact they have on the environment is through carbon offsetting their flights. Carbon offsets are voluntary schemes where people can pay to ‘offset’ or make up for the emissions that their flights produce. It sounds good in practice, but not a lot of people use them. Many passengers don’t know they exist, but even more are confused (or dubious) about which schemes to use.

Offsets aren’t at all straightforward and they’ve often been controversial – some of the schemes are run by profit-making companies and there’s no standard certification to show which are worthwhile. There are also moral questions about whether paying to pollute makes people less likely to change their behaviour. So what’s the truth about carbon offsetting?

Airport arrivals

Airport arrivals

How does carbon offsetting work?

Aircraft engines produces greenhouses gases, particles and water vapour which are released into the atmosphere. It’s this mixture that makes them so polluting, but the focus of offsetting is on carbon dioxide (CO2) as it’s the most common greenhouse gas. 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 by reducing it somewhere else instead, which will slow help to down the global rise in carbon dioxide levels. This is usually based on measuring how many tonnes of CO2 are produced by each flight and investing in a project which reduces CO2 levels by the same amount.

Green forest

Protecting the environment

There are two main types of offset project. First are forestry projects, which either stop existing trees being cut down or plant new ones. The trees act as a ‘biological sink’ by taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Then there are energy projects, which reduce the amount of fossil fuels used by investing in energy efficient products or renewable technology. Often these projects have social and sustainability benefits for developing countries too.

Sounds simple but any carbon offset project has to meet three criteria to be effective. There has to be additionality – which means the project wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been funded by the money from the carbon offsets. There has to be no leakage – so you can’t reduce emissions in one place if it means they’re increased somewhere else instead. And it has to be permanent – so it won’t be reversed in the future (which can be a bit of a challenge for forestry projects as how can you guarantee trees are never going to be cut down?).

Flying into the sunset

Flying into the sunset

How are carbon offsets calculated?

Various calculators have been developed to work out how much carbon dioxide you produce on a flight. The most basic just look at how many miles you’ve flown. The better ones also take into consideration your class of travel, the type of aircraft and how fuel efficient it is, the number of passengers it holds and the occupancy rate. But if you wanted to be super-accurate you’d need to take into account the time of day and weather too. Every carbon offset scheme calculates things differently – and some are a lot more comprehensive than others.

How much does carbon offsetting cost?

Because the calculators all work differently, the amount you pay varies too. I tested out a couple of the big calculators by looking at the amount of carbon I produced in 2018. Two long-haul return flights from the UK to the Caribbean and four short-haul return flights around Europe came out at around 7.5 tonnes. A short European flight (London to Geneva) is around €10, a longer one (London to Malta) around €20 and the UK to the Caribbean around €60.

It was interesting to see is that making a stopover can increase the amount of carbon you produce. As does flying in business or first class instead of economy – their lower passenger numbers mean they’re a less efficient use of space. A London to Dubai flight would cost €50 to offset in economy versus €95 in business and €145 in first. With a lot of people up the front end of the plane travelling for work, I wonder how many companies use offsets?

Scenery in Saint Lucia

Caribbean views

Which scheme should I use?

The big issue with carbon offsetting is choosing which scheme to use. There are a baffling number, most of which make lots of impressive claims and have websites covered in pictures of lovely green forests. But they’re not all regulated and how some are funded is a bit fuzzy. Sussing out the good from the bad is a full-time job, so it’s usually a case of taking recommendations from environmental organisations who’ve looked into them and certified the best.

Carbon offsetting with your airline

The easiest option is to offset directly with the airline when you book your flight. You just pay an extra fee on top of the flight cost which is donated to a carbon offset scheme. Around a third of airlines have some sort of carbon offset programme, but how they work varies. Some have their own schemes and others are enrolled in other people’s. Some are upfront about their offset programmes and others hide them away. Some give you the option to offset before you book and some only after (which means you can’t see the cost until after you’ve booked).

Among the airlines which are doing good things with carbon offsets are Qantas whose Future Planet scheme claims to be the largest airline offsetter. Their projects uses a mix of reforestation, forest protection and renewable energy projects – plus they offset their own staff travel. Other verified schemes include Air Canada’s work with Less Emissions, Brussels Airlines with CO2 Logic, KLM’s CO2ZERO and Austrian Airlines with Carbon Austria.

Airport departure board

Final call

Down the other end of the spectrum is Ryanair (why am I not surprised?), who recently started a carbon offset scheme which costs £1 for a flight from London to Oslo. There’s no accreditation and they say the funds will be “distributed annually to environmental charities and NGOs as selected by our people”. Can’t say that hugely fills me with confidence!

If your airline has a carbon offset scheme, take a look at their website before you buy to see if it’s worthwhile, or whether you’re better off spending your money elsewhere. Some of the things to look at are how offsets are calculated (is it just mileage-based or more comprehensive?), what type of projects they fund, what percentage of the money is used in admin and whether they’re certified by a verifed scheme like Gold Standard or Carbon Standard.

Seaplane in Victoria harbour, British Columbia, Canada

Seaplane coming in to land in Victoria, Canada

Carbon offsetting directly

Some airlines like Emirates choose not to offer offsets. Or you might want to offset flights you’ve already taken. And if you want to choose which type of project – or even which specific project – you fund, it’s usually best to offset directly. Gold Standard is one of the most widely recommended bodies and the name I kept coming across. It’s a Swiss non-profit founded by a group of environmental groups and NGOs including the WWF. Their projects are based in developing countries and combine reducing CO2 with sustainable development.

They don’t have their own calculator but they do have links to a couple where you can work out the amount of carbon you’ve used then choose a project to donate to. Otherwise they have various partners who run Gold Standard certified projects around the world:

  • Atmosfair in Germany (who have a particularly good calculator which rates airline efficiency and includes other greenhouses gases as well as CO2)
  • MyClimate in Switzerland
  • Climate Care in the UK
  • Terrapass in the US.
Munich airport

Munich airport

So is it worth carbon offsetting?

Does carbon offsetting really make a difference? The same amount of carbon dioxide is going to be released on that flight whether you offset or not. And it’s been argued that offsetting is just a way for people to feel less guilty without having to change their behavior. But if you do have to (or want to) fly, then offsetting has got to be better than doing nothing. My 2018 flights came in at €175 to offset – enough to make me think about my flying habits.

Environmental group Ethical Consumer advise choosing an individual project to fund rather than letting the company pick, so you know where your money’s going. And that energy efficiency projects are a better option than forestry as they directly reduce the amount of fossil fuels being used. They also recommend wind and solar over biomass as it’s less likely to be misused. Choosing a specific project does usually mean you pay more but it means you know you’re getting the maximum benefit. Otherwise you can just create your own offset by working out what you would have spent and donating it to a charity that’s helping the environment.

Trains in Switzerland

Taking the train

What else can I do to reduce my impact?

Well obviously the best way to reduce your impact is not to fly at all! That’s not going to be practical for most people, but it’s often possible to cut down or change how you fly.

Reduce short-haul: Short-haul flights under 500km are comparatively the worst polluters because it takes a lot of energy to get up and down. So could you take a train or bus instead sometimes? This can massively reduce the amount of carbon you produce – a return trip from London to Paris return would produce 110kg of CO2 by plane versus 6.6kg by train.

There’s often the idea that flying is a lot quicker but when you add in time getting to and waiting at the airport it often doesn’t make much difference. 80% of flights from the UK to Europe are to destinations which you could reach by train within a day. Looking at my travels last year, the Alps and Munich could have been pretty easily done by train, so cutting right down on short-haul flights is definitely something I’m going to prioritise this year.

Choose a more efficient airline: The airline you fly with makes a big difference to your emissions. Lower impact airlines usually have more modern, fuel-efficient planes and carry more passengers. Atmosfair have some very helpful rankings to help you decide – surprisingly charter airlines like TUI and Thomas Cook are among the best, as well as Jet2, Air Transat, KLM and Air New Zealand. And worst are US carriers United and Delta’s regional networks.

Jet2 plane in snow

Jet2 in the snow

Choose a more efficient flight: The type of flight you choose can also have an impact. Because take off and landing are when the largest amount of emissions are produced, it’s better to fly direct rather than stopover as you only have to do it once. Flying economy instead of business or first-class also reduces your impact (sadly not a choice I ever need to make!).

Apply some pressure: I said almost the same thing when I was talking about cruise travel, but pressure from consumers is so important in getting businesses to act in a more environmentally responsible way. The more people who ask about airlines’ emissions – whether that’s about their carbon offset policies or what tech they’re investing in – the more airlines will take things seriously if they think it’s having an impact on who we spend our money with.

Have you ever used a carbon offset?

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A guide to carbon offsetting your flights for air travellers, featuring what carbon offsets are, how they work and how to choose an offset scheme #carbonoffset #sustainability #flights #climatechange #airlines #airtravel

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23 Comments

  • Reply
    Kelly
    February 6, 2019 at 8:51 pm

    I thought the government added a green tax into all flights leaving / arriving the UK a few years ago to offset the damage?

    I’m very dubious of these schemes at present…there is very little transparency in the numbers.

    There was some really interesting scientific data that came out of America after 9/11 when they grounded all flights for a few days…the temperature in America reduced. It showed the environmental impact and how it’s contributing to climate change.

    Flights have become so cheap in the short haul market which is where most of the damage is done. These flights need to be either reduced or more heavily taxed.

    I’m all for change and sustainable travel but I don’t like money earning schemes if it doesn’t reduce the footprint in the long run.

    Companies need to look at the bigger picture rather than the profit…I just read an article about Air NZ looking at ways to reduce their plastic consumption on board their flights which should be tackled by the whole industry as well.

    Train travel is so easy in Europe between countries but not so easy in the South Pacific.

    Xx

    • Reply
      Lucy
      February 6, 2019 at 9:08 pm

      The tax is Air Passenger Duty – it was designed to make flying a bit less attractive by costing more but it only applies to flights departing from the UK (excluding Northern Ireland or the Scottish Highlands), isn’t that much, and the money hasn’t necessarily been used to help the environment (interesting post about it here: https://www.responsibletravel.com/copy/blog-post-thirty-eight)

      The transparency is definitely an issue with offset schemes, and there being so many iffy ones does muddy the waters for the good ones. I think it’s going to need a major behaviour change to make much difference to climate change now though – or some serious regulation, but that’s complicated by air transport involving multiple countries and there being a lot of commercial pressure to keep growing. Definitely agree that in some part of the world you don’t have to fly but within Europe there’s almost a billion passengers carried on flights each year which is just crazy! x

      • Reply
        Kelly
        February 7, 2019 at 1:19 am

        It would be fabulous if the governments could all work together to tackle climate change however that’s never going to happen unfortunately as we’ve seen by their actions over the past few years.
        Look at China, it’s now faster to take a train between major cities rather than flying and this has only happened in the past 10-15 years.
        Remember the days when you went on one flight a year if you were lucky; those days are long gone since the introduction of the cheap airline flight model which has made travel more accessible to the masses including myself.
        Cheap flights are like fast fashion; cheap, nasty and bad for the environment.
        I would be happy to offset my carbon footprint if the money went towards investing in better land transport links so that I didn’t have to fly at a future date…unfortunately planting a tree isn’t going to sort the issue out, better rail links would.
        xx

  • Reply
    Annika
    February 6, 2019 at 9:03 pm

    Thank you for writing this post – a great overview. I’d started looking into this recently and was getting frustrated trying to collect reliable information. So this comes in handy!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      February 6, 2019 at 9:09 pm

      Glad to hear it was useful – it’s a really complicated system which must put people off!

  • Reply
    Suzanne Jones
    February 6, 2019 at 11:35 pm

    I’m sceptical about some of the airline offset programmes so I’d be inclined to go with an independent non-profit making organisation. I learnt a lot from your post and I’m now more aware of how the airlines differ in their attitudes towards environmental damage and and will definitely be more mindful when booking or better still look into taking the train (which I prefer anyway)

    • Reply
      Lucy
      February 12, 2019 at 10:03 pm

      I definitely prefer the idea of choosing your own offset project rather than just going with the airlines’ choice as you get to see where your money is really going.

  • Reply
    Emily/The Grown Up Gap Year
    February 7, 2019 at 8:58 am

    Such an interesting post Lucy and something I feel many of us are starting to think more about. How does the cost of European railfares compare to flights? That’s something that always frustrates me in the UK, that it’s usually cheaper to drive somewhere than get the train. That being said, I much prefer train travel to flying.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      February 12, 2019 at 10:05 pm

      Thanks Emily! The fares do really vary and that must put people off, you can get some really good bargains but it takes a lot of planning and airlines often seem the cheaper/easier option.

  • Reply
    restlessjo
    February 7, 2019 at 8:39 pm

    Thanks for this, Lucy! A very sensible look at the whole issue, which I have to admit, I’ve not spent much time thinking about.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      February 12, 2019 at 10:07 pm

      Thanks Jo! Doing this uni course has made me think about so many things I’d not really thought about much before – and definitely some worrying trends about how travel is affecting the environment.

  • Reply
    Rachel Wuest
    February 8, 2019 at 5:33 am

    Amazing, comprehensive post. I flew with RyanAir and am guilty of paying the quid to offset my emissions, it really makes you think to double check that these kind of schemes are legit!

    Rachel || http://anotherstationanothermile.com

    • Reply
      Lucy
      February 12, 2019 at 10:07 pm

      Thanks Rachel! I guess at least they are doing something, but would recommend looking at the more regulated, verified schemes if you want to offset in future.

  • Reply
    Sara @ Travel Continuum
    February 13, 2019 at 4:44 pm

    I love this new direction you’ve recently taken, Lucy – a subject very close to my heart. And as ever, you have a knack for explaining complex issues in a digestible way, which makes the posts all the more useful. I’m with the majority here, and would always opt for an independent offsetter.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      February 16, 2019 at 4:12 pm

      Thanks Sara! My course is giving me so many ideas and it’s been interesting to take the academic stuff and make it more accessible for the blog.

  • Reply
    Kathryn Burrington
    February 15, 2019 at 11:10 am

    I’ve only ever used carbon offset offered by the company I used to work for on their flights but agree an independent one would probably be better. Fabulous article Lucy. I agree with Sara, you explain it all so well.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      February 16, 2019 at 4:14 pm

      Thanks! Having looked into it I think I’d go with an independent one too where you can see exactly where your money is going.

  • Reply
    aeparker81
    February 15, 2019 at 6:46 pm

    I never look at the extra bits after I buy the main flight, but the offset is a very good idea, at a time when school children are on strike because of what we are all doing to the environment… I dread to think with all my work (short haul) flying what I’ve done… In our Volvo we add something in next to the filler cap which helps reduces emissions… Sounds like something like that is needed to keep the 747’s in the sky and flying cleanly

    • Reply
      Lucy
      February 16, 2019 at 4:18 pm

      There are various tech solutions to reduce emissions but the problem is they’re so slow to market with all the safety testing that’s needed – and the rise in demand is outstripping any carbon saving. In reality the only thing that’s really going to help is a major change in people’s behaviour but that’s a tough sell!

  • Reply
    Jaillan Yehia
    February 17, 2019 at 1:45 pm

    Wow I’ve really learned a lot from this post – I didn’t know the criteria for offsetting and I certainly didn’t know about Ryanair’s scheme! This kind of thing makes me frustrated because when there are too many options, some of which a bit iffy it becomes all too easy for people to write the whole thing off as a scam. What would be much better is a single government backed scheme, but the government haven’t even enforced recycling properly here (in Denmark for example it’s taken so much more seriously and people take heed) so I am guessing pushing carbon offsetting for the privileged few who fly regularly is some way off. 🙁

    • Reply
      Lucy
      February 25, 2019 at 2:04 pm

      It does seem unnecessarily complicated – I’m sure people would be much more likely to use offsets if there was a clear certification but somehow I can’t see it being a priority for our government anytime soon!

  • Reply
    TravelTear
    February 20, 2019 at 3:05 am

    Happy to see such an educational post in a Travel Blog! I often avoid flights whenever possible if it’s not urgent. This is the simple tip I follow. Also, all the airlines should be transparent about this to the public as well.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      February 25, 2019 at 2:07 pm

      Thank you – yes I’m really cutting my flights down too and hopefully more people will start thinking about how they can reduce their impact.

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