The traveller’s guide to carbon offsetting your flights

The travellers’ guide to carbon offsetting your flights

I have 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 as worrying about being up in the air, I’ve started worrying more about the environmental impact of flying, and especially the way it contributes to climate change. Carbon offsetting flights is often mentioned as a partial solution to the problem, but what is offsetting and how does it work, if at all?

Read more: Sustainable travel swaps: 9 ways to reduce your impact

Plane flying above skyscrapers
Flying high

The environmental impact of flying

Flights account for around 2.5% of global carbon dioxide production at the moment, but the industry is expanding. 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.

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?

The view from the train on the Glacier Express, Switzerland
Taking the train through the Alps

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 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 which is 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 overall global increase 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.

Flying into the sunset
Flying into the sunset

There are two main types of offset project. First 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. And secondly 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.

It also has to be permanent – so it won’t be reversed in the future (which can be a challenge for forestry projects, as how can you guarantee trees will never be cut down?).

Green forest as a carbon offset scheme
Protecting the environment

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 offset schemes also take into consideration the class of travel you’re flying in, 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 also need to take into account the time of day and weather conditions too, which affect how much fuel is used. Every carbon offset scheme calculates things differently – and some are a lot more comprehensive than others.

Plane on the runway
Plane on the runway

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 in Europe came to 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 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?

If you decide to carbon offset flights, the big issue is choosing which scheme to use. There are a baffling number, most of which make impressive claims and have websites covered in pictures of 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 advice from environmental organisations who’ve examined 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 booking and some only after (so you can’t see the cost until after you’ve booked).

Airport departure board
Final call

Among the airlines doing good things with carbon offsets are Qantas, whose Future Planet scheme claims to be the largest airline offsetter. They offset their own staff travel and offer frequent flyer points to passengers buying offsets. Other verified schemes include Air Canada’s with Less Emissions, KLM’s CO2ZERO and Austrian Airlines with Climate Austria.

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 buy to see if it’s worthwhile, or whether you’re better off spending your money elsewhere.

Things to look at include how offsets are calculated (is it just mileage-based or more comprehensive?), the type of projects they fund, what percentage of the money is used in admin and whether they’re certified by a verified scheme like Gold 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.

Gold Standard is a Swiss non-profit organisation which was 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.
Interior of 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 behaviour. 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 fossil fuels usage. 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 an environmental charity.

Trains in Switzerland
Taking the train in Switzerland

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 produces 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.

Jet2 plane on the runway in the snow
Jet2 plane in the snow

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 helpful rankings to help you decide – surprisingly charter airlines like TUI 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.

Choose a more efficient flight: The 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 need to make!).

Apply some pressure: I said the same thing when talking about cruises, but pressure from consumers is so important in getting businesses to act in a more environmentally responsible way. The more people who ask about airline emissions – whether it’s 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.

Plane overhead among palm trees
Taking flight

Read more sustainability posts

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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 | Guide to carbon offsetting | Carbon offset flights | What is carbon offsetting | Air travel and the environment | Sustainable travelCarbon offsetting for travellers – a guide to how carbon offsets work, what they cost, how to choose an offset scheme and what else you can do to reduce your environmental impact | Guide to carbon offsetting | Carbon offset flights | What is carbon offsetting | Air travel and the environment | Sustainable travel

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  • Reply
    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.


    • Reply
      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:

      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

      • 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.

  • Reply
    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
      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
      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
      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
    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
      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!

    • Reply
      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
      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
      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
    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
      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
      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
    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
      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.

  • Reply
    May 8, 2019 at 12:59 pm

    Lucy, I found this really helpful. I’ve been struggling to find out how to effectively offset my carbon footprint. I’m glad you’ve shown me there are worthwhile options to pursue, and we will fully offset our pollution and more besides, to make up for all that has gone before.

    Thanks again, and keep up the good work!

    • Reply
      May 14, 2019 at 4:10 pm

      Thanks David, so glad to hear the article was useful and that you’re thinking of offsetting.

  • Reply
    Paul Oliver
    June 4, 2019 at 3:38 pm

    It is worth remembering that the cost of First Class and Business Class flights to the customer subsidises Economy Class flights. Like everyone with a disposable income, I want to travel and see other parts of the world only accessible by the wonder of Jet Flight. It is therefore possible for more people to enjoy experiencing travel because of First Class and Business Class. I therefore celebrate Business and First Class travel for enabling millions of people globally to experience what some of us, Lucy, have come to take for granted.

    • Reply
      June 4, 2019 at 4:42 pm

      That’s an interesting perspective on it I hadn’t thought about. Unfortunately I do believe we are flying too much now and flights have become too available, to the detriment of the environment, so is encouraging more flights something that we should be doing?

  • Reply
    Nell (Pigeon Pair and Me)
    June 25, 2019 at 11:09 am

    This is so helpful. I was at a party with some people from Extinction Rebellion at the weekend, and I felt pretty shamed that I’m not doing more. I’d always try and go by train in Europe where possible, though. Even before the rise in environmental awareness, I thought it was a much nicer way to travel.

    • Reply
      July 8, 2019 at 5:24 pm

      I definitely agree – I find train travel so relaxing but flying always a stress!

  • Reply
    June 26, 2019 at 11:17 am

    @Ryanair that is *so* not what is meant by carbon offset!

    My input as a relatively frequent business traveller:
    The stingier and less employee-friendly companies will accidentally be more carbon efficient, in their disregard for what condition their employees arrive in to work at the destination location, because they almost never fly business. Most companies these days try to avoid travel, for controlling travel budget reasons, favouring instead teleconferences or other web-based collaboration.
    One way that more employee-caring companies could end up being more efficient, is by allowing the employee to choose the flight route (within reason). Generally business travellers prefer as few transits as possible, to shorten the travel time. A pro-employee company will tend to allow that even when the route costs more, to reduce strain on the employee.

    • Reply
      July 8, 2019 at 5:28 pm

      Teleconferencing is a really good tool if it can be used – saves so much time and money as well as the environmental impact. But interesting to see how different companies manage business travel.

  • Reply
    June 28, 2019 at 1:33 pm

    Thanks for this Lucy – really helpful, and important!
    Any idea why the Atmosfair and ClimateCare calculators give such different results for the same trips?
    For example, London to Tirana in Albania is 0.63 tonnes of C02 @ £4 with ClimateCare, but 904kg of C02 @ €21 with Atmosfair.
    And London to Phuket via Doha is 2.88 tonnes of C02 @ £21 with ClimateCare, but 5210kg of C02 @ €121 with Atmosfair.
    It’s hard to know who to go with!
    Thanks again

    • Reply
      July 8, 2019 at 5:37 pm

      Hi Elliot, I think it is to do whether they calculate it as straight emission levels or add an extra allowance for the emissions being released high in the atmosphere where they can be more damaging – so both are technically correct but the higher figure covers the effects more comprehensively.

  • Reply
    June 30, 2019 at 9:59 am

    Elliot, Atomosfair includes “Contrails, ozone formation and other effects” in their calculations (click “Show detailed emission data” after calculating the CO2), which perhaps explains why it is so much more expensive.

    • Reply
      July 8, 2019 at 5:39 pm

      Thanks – yes seems to be the difference.

  • Reply
    July 1, 2019 at 7:38 am

    Nice post, thanks for doing that research.

    Rather than buying an offset, which can be a bit like funding a black box, I’d be more interested in joining a project and effecting a carbon drawdown equivalent to my emissions through my own offer of labour.

    Broadly speaking, say i have two one-week holidays a year, one might be a traditional sun and sand in the Mediterranean incurring a carbon emissions hit, the other one would be a working holiday on an accredited carbon offsetting project that would repay the carbon debt for my holiday in Greece or wherever.

    This sounds more appealing to me than paying for my sins in cash.

    I’m not sure if such schemes exist though; I looked at Climate Care but they seem tailored to organisations, not individuals, and their projects are overseas, so I end up incurring more emissions in the travel to get there. Maybe one such would be Trees for Life in the Scottish Highlands, but are there others you might be aware of ? I’d want one that was based on some accredited method of carbon offsetting calculation.

    Thx again,


    • Reply
      July 8, 2019 at 5:44 pm

      That’s a really interesting idea – and much more personal responsibility that just paying for a project to be funded. I’m not aware of any direct carbon offset volunteer projects, but there are conservation charities and places like Workaway where you can work in return for accommodation and choose to help out with forestry or energy projects. Will definitely keep an eye out for more though.

  • Reply
    July 11, 2019 at 3:51 am

    Hi Lucy,
    Just wanted to say thank you very much for writing this post. I found it a really useful summary and I’ve just donated to Gold Standard to offset a recent flight I have taken from the UK to Cambodia for work. What I liked about Gold Standard (on top of the fact that it is WWF recommended and seems to get the best reviews) is that I was able to offset my carbon emissions by donating to a project locally in Cambodia.

    I feel very much the same as you – I love the places planes take me but I also worry for the environmental damage I am contributing towards. I feel that every little bit helps in terms of our individual behaviour and as I go forward I will try to use public transport more, fly less and commit to offsetting future flights. Carbon offsetting certainly has it’s limitations but until we have electric planes, or whatever new technology is to come, its better than doing nothing.



    • Reply
      July 21, 2019 at 8:55 pm

      Thanks Louisa, really glad to hear the post was useful and it’s great that you could find a local project to donate to!

  • Reply
    RIPPLE Africa
    July 18, 2019 at 10:42 am

    Great post Lucy. You’re absolutely right, there are so many schemes out there to choose from and it’s best to choose wisely. RIPPLE Africa have been issued carbon offsets for our fuel efficient cookstove project in Malawi which is registered under the Clean Development Mechanism and is operated under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The project is currently supporting over 40,000 households to change their way of cooking, saving over 80,000 bundles of wood per week. We are audited annually to verify the savings in carbon emissions so people can be confident that our project really is benefitting the environment in Malawi. This fuel efficient cookstove is a way of life and has significantly reduced Malawi’s greenhouse gas emissions. This is a great video about it Flying and offsetting is better than flying and not offsetting.

    • Reply
      July 21, 2019 at 9:15 pm

      Thanks for commenting – sounds like a great project and I’ll definitely check it out.

  • Reply
    July 21, 2019 at 3:16 am

    There really is no justification for flying a third of the way around the world for a beach holiday, but this seems increasingly the thing to do, so as to impress Instagram pals.

    Such a flight deposits pushing a year’s car use of CO2 into the upper atmosphere for every passenger.

    The only real justification for leisure flying is to visit relatives, but an annual holiday flight may just be acceptable, like it was back in the 1990s.

    The only offset which really works is to cut car use by equivalent mileage flown, which means that for a flight to Australia you should give up driving for a year.

    • Reply
      July 21, 2019 at 9:32 pm

      The social media pressure definitely plays a part, along with cheap flights – and a lot of business travel which I’m sure could be seriously cut back. Interesting idea about not driving as a form of offset, I don’t drive and mostly don’t need to travel by car but of course it depends where you live and how good the public transport is.

  • Reply
    Andy Brown
    October 1, 2019 at 10:08 am

    Back in 2007, George Monbiot claims in ‘Heat: How We Can Stop the Planet Burning’ that the only possible excuse for flying is “love miles”, ie visiting immediate relatives. I think the big problem is ‘additionality’. If we have to do everything possible to reduce our emissions to keep heating below 1.5 degrees, what offsetting project can be seen ass additional?
    For a lighthearted critique of offsetting, everyone should watch Cheat Neutral

    • Reply
      October 13, 2019 at 4:40 pm

      Interesting point, but I think for most people are so far away from doing everything they can at the moment, so I guess projects have additionality at present – but hopefully if people did more, then offsetting wouldn’t be necessary.

  • Reply
    John Young
    October 10, 2019 at 2:37 am

    Thanks Lucy,

    What a great, well researched and easily understandable article! I have just had a multi-flight holiday to the UK, Paris, Spain and Portugal from Melbourne Australia with two stopovers in Hong Kong on the way and Singapore on the return journey. I refuse to fly without a stopover to Europe as it is way too far and tiring especially in economy and without a stopover it takes a week to get over the jet lag. I’m now looking at ways to carbon offset my flights. I was chatting to a fellow demonstrator at a very large rally against inactivity on climate change in Melbourne recently (100,000 people plus) and he said he simply gives money to charities protecting wildlife but of course this begs the question of how a fair donation should be calculated. I already give regular small donations to many environmental and conservation groups. (I did catch the Eurostar London to Paris which is great and very comfortable and the high speed train from Paris to Madrid via Barcelona but this takes about 10 hours with an hour wait in Barcelona so it becomes as tedious as a long haul flight). Regards, John Young

    • Reply
      October 13, 2019 at 5:16 pm

      Thanks John, glad you found it useful. Making your own offsets to environmental charities is a good idea to as you can choose exactly where you want to the money to go, and you can use the offset calculators to get an idea of how much to pay.

  • Reply
    John Henderson
    November 10, 2019 at 2:06 am

    Hi Lucy,

    Thank you for posting an interesting, easy to read and informative article.

    I would like permission to use it as a link and referral on my website and onboard my tour boat for my guests if this is possible?

    I am also upgrading my EcoTourism Australia certification to a higher level and would like to use this as a guideline in my certification process.

    I look forward to hearing back from you.

    Kind regards

    John Henderson
    Whitsunday Paradise Explorer

    • Reply
      November 11, 2019 at 6:06 pm

      Hi John, yes sure you’d be very welcome to link to the article from your site!

  • Reply
    Clara Modig
    November 10, 2019 at 4:34 pm

    I have visited your page as we are in the middle of a heated family debate about whether to fly abroad on holiday next year.
    As a mother, keen to preserve a living planet for my children, I feel very strongly that, knowing just how damaging air travel is for the environment, there really is no justification for leisure flying. An immigrant to the UK from Europe, I have resisted the ‘love miles’ argument, and refrained from flying ‘home’ for many years, despite the obvious convenience and emotional pull.
    My partner would love for us to travel ‘somewhere hot’ in the Mediterranean next spring, and we can not seem to be able to see the other’s point of view. I found your site while slim-chance hunting for some out-there, radical off-setting scheme that would allow us to travel with a clean conscience, knowing deep in my heart that no such option exists. The closest I have seen here would be for us to surrender use of the car for a year. Each. I’ll put that to him and see what he says 🙂 .
    You might want to include a link or reference to TreeSisters, who, while not offering direct off-setting solutions, are passionate about re-forestation on a huge scale, and a deep re-education of how we connect to Nature.

    • Reply
      November 11, 2019 at 6:04 pm

      Thanks for commenting. Unfortunately there’s no guilt-free offset system, the car idea would be interesting though. Somewhere hot in the Med might well be do-able by train though, although it can get expensive for families. Thanks for the tip on the TreeSisters too, I will check them out.

  • Reply
    A Moose
    November 11, 2019 at 2:42 am

    Based on your “want to go places” here:, I calculated your CO2 contribution.

    I took the locations and flight distances. I made each hop from one to the other to give you a break, except for one hop where I made a return to the UK before heading back out. This is probably not accurate since you would probably be heading home before other trips, etc.

    So, this is a *conservative* estimate.

    You would fly approximately 52, 568 miles.

    Based on the BlueSky CO2 model, you would be responsible for adding 2,786,104.00 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere. I know you mentioned that CO2 that high up is more harmful, but don’t forget about the other pollutants that are acidifying all the oceans you’re flying over.

    So, in tons, you will be adding approximately 1,293 TONS of CO2 into the atmosphere. Just so you can travel. Thanks for that.

    Now, those are just air miles, which represent about 53 lbs per air mile. It is also very conservative, so I think it should be multiplied by about 1.5, but let’s call it an even 1,500 tons of CO2.

    Now, if you factor in the rest of your pollution, you would need to add all the cars, food, clothing — everything, to really come up with a number.

    Let’s see where you factor into the total miles flown each year: 52,481,606,750. If you did all of this travel in a year, you would be responsible for something like .001 % of that.

    What is 52,481,606,750 miles in CO2? 2,781,525,157,750‬ lbs.

    1,390,762,578 TONS of CO2.

    Let’s take a tree and assume it survive it’s planting.
    One tree when it reaches adolescence might pull in about 48 lbs of CO2 a year and maybe store about 1 ton after 40 years.

    Remember that number: 2,781,525,157,750 lbs of CO2 every year?

    You and everyone else would need to plant 69,538,128,943 trees every year. That is 69 and half billion trees. Actually, it would be more because immature trees don’t consume that much CO2 to begin with, so let’s double it to cover your 53 lbs of CO2 per mile.

    That’s 139,076,257,886 (139 billion) trees every year.

    Now, don’t forget that it will take quite a lot of energy to plant those trees. There will also be a lot of maintenance and replanting because trees will die.

    So, after ten years we’re looking at 1,390,762,578,860 (One TRILLION, 390 BILLION) trees planted? Really? That is the solution you have so rationalized?

    Here’s how you solve the man made climate change problem: stop flying.

    In the meantime, stop being a hypocrite. You fly for pleasure and money, not for necessity.

    You do NOT care about the environment or you wouldn’t do it. You are, literally, killing the planet.

    I assume you won’t have the courage to publish this, just like I am using an anonymous name. People don’t like the truth these days and only attack when being judged for their own folly. I hope you take this personally, however, and take a really good look at just how much damage you are doing.

    • Reply
      November 11, 2019 at 5:59 pm

      Hi ‘Moose’, I’m more than happy to publish this – I think it’s important to have these debates and you raise some interesting points. A few things to note though:

      My travel wishlist is of places I’d like to visit in my lifetime – I definitely wouldn’t be doing them all in one year, let alone every year.

      I travel by train as much as possible, so there are several places on the list (Italy, Scotland, Arctic Circle) I would travel to by train.

      In 2019 I’ve taken two return flights – one short haul and one Transatlantic – below average for most people, let alone travel writers. And in 2020 I’m taking part in Flight Free 2020 and won’t be flying at all.

      I completely agree that carbon offsetting is not a solution to climate change. People need to make changes to their lifestyles, but there also needs to be political and economic change on a larger scale.

      There are a lot of reasons people fly – not just holidays and of course that’s an area we should look to reduce – but if they are flying then is it not better to do something towards offsetting the damage done, rather than doing nothing? In the same way that surely it’s better to cut down on flying rather than frame it as an ‘all or nothing’ issue where it’s not worthwhile doing anything unless you give it up altogether?

      Educating people about their impact on the environment is important, as is providing information about alternatives – but shaming people for their choices is only likely to alienate them.

      • Andy Brown
        November 12, 2019 at 8:56 am

        You must admit though, that the main thrust of your blog is to educate people about the joys of travel, not the moral issues of polluting the earth. If you wrote a blog saying shoplifting is fun (which it is) people would question your morality, not expect you to say that you can later buy indulgences by sending money to the appropriate trade body.

      • Lucy
        November 12, 2019 at 9:06 am

        Of course is it – this is a travel blog and I would always encourage people to see the world. But travel covers a huge range of different experiences, it’s not just air travel/long haul/mass tourism, there are plenty of low-impact options too, and the tourist industry supports millions of people around the world (unlike shoplifting which I think you’d struggle to find any positives for…).

  • Reply
    David Guest
    November 29, 2019 at 10:55 am

    Thanks for this very thorough treatment, Lucy. Until flying is against the law or subject to rationing, this kind of pragmatism is probably the best we can hope for.

    • Reply
      December 12, 2019 at 9:42 am

      Thank you, yes cutting down is definitely the best thing we can do but until then it’s better to do something.

  • Reply
    January 16, 2020 at 2:59 pm

    How is the carbon calculated? Is it the marginal fuel used to carry you as a passenger? Or the total amount of carbon from a flight divided by the average number of passengers? Would every passenger need to use carbon offset for the flight to be offset entirely?
    Many thanks!

    • Reply
      January 16, 2020 at 3:10 pm

      Hi, each offset programme will calculate things differently, but the better ones look at the type of aircraft and passenger load and work out the amount of carbon produced per person – so yes to fully offset the flight you would need every person to use a carbon offset, which is a long way off at the moment!

  • Reply
    Steve Welch
    February 17, 2020 at 11:47 am

    Very thought provoking. My wife and I are currently worrying ourselves to an early grave over the scary reports about global warming and are not going to fly this year.
    We are currently discussing about trying to purchase a piece of poor local agricultural land to plant up with trees to try to reduce our guilt about past flights we have taken. Friends have also said they would like to carbon off-set their holiday plans.
    Has anyone else done something similar?

    • Reply
      February 25, 2020 at 4:51 pm

      That’s a really interesting idea, I’ve not heard of anyone doing anything similar but it would be a good way to know that the land will stay forested and have control of what happens to it.

  • Reply
    Nicola Reiss
    February 29, 2020 at 9:16 am

    Thank you for this article, Lucy. I have a long-haul flight to Australia coming up (“love miles” according to Monbiot) which is why I’m looking for carbon-offsetting information.
    I would like to add support to the comment above by RIPPLE AFRICA. If you choose to support a clean cookstove project (several offered by Gold Standard) then you are also promoting better health for women and children, who are frequently breathing in lung-damaging woodsmoke as they cook. Many women in many countries simply have no choice with regards to cooking fuel – they have to cook for their families, and the only fuel available is wood. Clean cookstove projects are vitally important for more than just off-setting carbon.

    • Reply
      March 9, 2020 at 12:08 pm

      Thanks, glad to hear it was useful – and yes very true about cookstove projects.

  • Reply
    Ripple Africa
    March 12, 2020 at 10:46 am

    Thank you Nicola. There are all sorts of carbon offsetting projects that reduce carbon emissions, from solar farms and wind turbines to fuel-efficient cookstoves and prices do vary. People need to decide their motivation for whichever project they choose to support, should it be solely based on price or the other benefits the project delivers?

    The reduced need for wood with use of the our fuel-efficient cookstoves means that women who used to collect a large bundle of wood 3-4 times a week now only have to collect wood once a week, equating to a time saving for women of about 10 hours each week. Every year each cookstove saves 100 bundles of wood which equals 3 tonnes of carbon emissions (3 offsets).

    In addition to numerous environmental benefits, the cookstoves are safer too as in less risk of burns and smoke inhalation too.

  • Reply
    John Everson
    May 31, 2020 at 1:53 pm

    Thank you for the article which has really helped me think through the issues. As you say no sort of offsetting is going to stop the CO2 being emitted if I fly and until now I was definitely in the category of thinking about offsetting asa way of making me feel less guilty whilst still jetting round the world willy nilly. Adding in the contribution that air travel made to the rapid initial spread of COVID-19, I’m thinking that my future foreign travel will be limited to Europe by rail.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      June 3, 2020 at 8:46 pm

      Thanks, glad it was useful, there are so many issues to consider but I think I’ll be mainly sticking to European rail travel for a while too.

  • Reply
    July 5, 2020 at 12:04 pm

    Thank you for this article! I was feeling pretty lost about where to start with carbon offsetting, but this really helped! Now trying to convince my family to take the train London- Paris instead of flying 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      July 23, 2020 at 1:21 pm

      The Eurostar from London to Paris a really good place to start – such an easy and quick journey it’s often quicker than flying once you factor in getting to the airport and security etc.

  • Reply
    Soeren Thomsen
    December 20, 2020 at 10:42 am

    Dear Lucy, I must say that I appreciate your effort but I simply don’t agree with most of your argumentation. Demand reduction is the only why to make sure the travel industry will comply with the Paris Agreement. Please have a lot at this recent comment on myths related to offsetting by 41 scientists.

    It is sad to still in 2020 read that offsetting is seen as a solution for sustainable travel.

    Kind regards
    Soeren Thomsen
    Ocean and climate scientists, LOCEAN, IPSL, CNRS, Sorbonne University, Paris, France

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      January 27, 2021 at 4:41 pm

      Hi Soren, thanks for commenting and the link to the article – some interesting points there and I agree that offsetting isn’t a solution for sustainable travel, that needs much bigger changes through society. But right now people are flying (look at the numbers even during a pandemic year!) and while they do then I would argue that offsets are better than doing nothing, it does at least make a small contribution and help raise the profile of the environmental impact.

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