Airline offsetting is a distraction from policies that can actually reduce emissions

“Should I offset my flight, and if so, which offset should I use” is now the question I get asked most frequently. It’s understandable - CO2 emissions per flight mean that flying is by far the most carbon intensive activity anyone can engage in.

It's a reality that people fly more and more regularly. Some have cut back on flying, a few have given up entirely. But, whether it's for work or to visit family abroad, flying, for many, is unavoidable. 

What’s equally unavoidable is the climate impact of those flights.

We’re fortunate that in an increasing number of our consumer choices, we can choose the greener option. Electric cars, renewable energy, meatless diets and well insulated homes. But no “green option” exists for flying. (More below on why that’s the case.) 

So for those wanting to fly, it leaves them in a bind, looking for a way to compensate for the climate damage they are causing. The answer being presented by some is to offset - to pay someone else to reduce their emissions, rather than reduce your own. For example, investing in renewable energy or tree-planting in some other part of the globe. 

Do carbon offsets work? 

Many have called them modern day papal indulgences, after the middle ages practice of paying priests to absolve you of your sins. I’m not a theologist, indeed I’m a (very) lapsed Catholic, so I’m no expert on whether indulgences will cleanse your soul. But we can be honest and say that, after decades of trying to make them work, offsetting most certainly will not wipe your carbon slate clean. The reasons are, unfortunately, a little complex but, briefly, there’s a reason they won't work in practice, and a reason they won't work in theory. 

The “in practice” is easiest to explain. When you make a payment, you can’t be sure that the carbon-cutting activity you pay for actually takes place, or wouldn’t have taken place regardless of the payment. For example, whether those trees planted won’t burn down, or whether the solar plant was going to be built anyway. It’s known as “additionality” and the most comprehensive research has shown that most offsets don’t have it.  

The theoretical problem is rooted in how the Paris Agreement has been designed. The agreement has a temperature and emissions target, but it lets each party set their own level of ambition. That leaves open the possibility that parties will set weak targets for themselves, and sell you any overachievement as an offset. No extra emissions are reduced, but you’re led to believe that you’re flying sustainably. 

As a result, it's fair to say that offsetting, more generally, is incompatible with the Paris Agreement. That agreement is about all sectors and all parties bringing their emissions to zero.

Paying someone else to reduce emissions, while airlines keep burning fossil fuels, is incompatible with that objective. 

Fitting offsetting into the Paris Agreement is like fitting a square peg into a round hole

Despite this apparent contradiction, the Paris Agreement does in fact have provisions relating to offsetting, contained in Article 6 of that agreement. The catch is that, four years after the Paris Agreement was signed, states still can’t agree how to operationalise these provisions. They failed again last month at the climate conference in Madrid. It's the only section of the agreement that negotiators have failed to operationalise. 

And they are likely to continue to fail, because fitting offsetting into the Paris Agreement is like fitting a square peg into a round hole. Offsetting should be seen as a bug, not a feature, of the agreement. 

How to cure climate guilt? 

Where does all this leave the concerned citizen who wants to cure their climate guilt? They can offset, doing their best to find the most reputable suppliers. The transfer of any money from the well-off (and it is the well-off who fly most) to those most affected by climate change (and it's always the worst-off who’ll be most affected) should be welcome. 

The unavoidable reality is that the limited benefits of offsetting will never be enough to offset the known damage of flying.

That hasn’t stopped industry from investing in them, even when they freely admit that offsetting isn’t a solution. And there are moves underway to finalise a global system where airlines will offset a portion of their emissions (called Corsia - the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation), though the problems inherent to offsetting mean it will never solve aviation’s climate problem. Yet airlines are pushing for this to be the only measure in place. 

What governments need to do 

So governments have a choice to make. Because, unlike individuals, who have limited choice and limited power, the options for governments are practically endless. They can tax, invest, ban, restrict, order and command. That’s why we have electric vehicles and clean power - because the power of the state was used to bend markets and drive innovation. 

Offsetting by individuals is, at worst, ineffective.

Governments implementing offsetting schemes is something much worse - a distraction from effective policies that can actually reduce aviation emissions. 

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and her new team seem to understand this. The European Green Deal makes no reference to aviation offsetting, but instead focuses on policies such as kerosene taxation, emissions trading and new fuels. All these have the potential to really cut emissions. 

The test is whether she is able to follow through on these big promises. Some industries will try to distract focus by continuing to flog offsetting but VdL must continue to avoid such futile ideas. She has the political capital and the public demand to take real measures to cut aircraft emissions. Now is the time to act.

 

Comments

Joost's picture

Comment: 

Good piece, but I'd like to throw in one more argument in favour of offsetting, and that is to restore fair price incentives between different forms of transport. If, as a climate-concious traveller or business, you agree to compensate in projects that carry a significant CO2-price (far above the ETS price, e.g. 100-150 EUR/ton), that "cheap" flight to Barcelona suddenly becomes more expensive, potentially more expensive than the "expensive" train there.

Antoine Geerinckx's picture

Comment: 

It is a good article because it is important to question if all this really works and challenge the current policies/offsetting mechanisms. The only issue I have with this article is that it starts with comparing offsetting again with the « indulgences » and mentioning that all studies have proven that offsetting does not work. Firstly, one has to be very very religious to believe that you can pay a priest or a pope to forgive your sins, this has never, in my opinion been proven scientifically while the result of financing a CO2 reduction in a developing country can be proven scientifically, especially for certified/verified (additional, permanent,...) climate projects. Secondly, not all studies have proven that offsetting does not work. Many studies show an impressive list of co-benefits (mainly SDGs) for each ton of CO2 reduced through e.g Gold Standard certified climate projects. So it is very biased to say it does not work in theory & in practice while there are many cases where it really works in theory & practice. Before claiming such things one should visit a project to see with its own eyes the positive effects of serious climate projects.
Another undervalued benefit of offsetting is the fact the people and companies voluntary put a price on their CO2. As any economic activity one can observe that people / organisations that offset their CO2 will reduce their CO2 emissions faster than those that say offsetting does not work or do nothing... because they have accepted to pay for it. The other weakness of this article is that it polarises everything: or reducing or offsetting... it seems to be not compatible in this article. While the most impactful approach might be reduce & offset the remaining CO2 hence putting a price on the currently incompressible CO2 so that people and corps keep looking at how to further reduce their CO2...

Werner Reh's picture

Comment: 

the point to look more closely into good and bad offsetting projects, with or without Non CO2-effects is certainly valid. But I still doubt if any project can compensate CO2-emissions in practice which stay for 100 years and more in the atmosphere as CO2 does. Is there any project lasting for that timespan (including the ones I ordered from "atmosfair" when I was still flying) or don't we need five projects, each scheduled for 20 years? I think the duration of projects, whether they are "permanent" is even more important as Andrews point of additionality.

If offsetting is introduced on a global scale, as in CORSIA, we would have to handle new offsetting projects for more than 20 million tons of CO2 from 2021 onwards every year. Who will be able to control that? ICAO? And Andrew is right in saying that offsetting completely undermines the Paris agreement: No in-sector-reduction in aviation. The buck is passed to other sectors and places somewhere in the world. And we get the additionality problem at latest here with the NDC of the Climate Framework. Furthermore, the pledge to reduce the CO2-equ. to zero is scrapped in one sector. Others sectors and countries will want to follow.

So fiscal measures are needed, such as a kerosin tax, emission tradings systems etc.

John Byng's picture

Comment: 

It is unfair and counterproductive to claim that all offsetting is useless. However the article does show that offsetting is not sufficient on its own and that the aviation industry should not be allowed to claim that it can ever be sufficient.
One possible benefit of aviation offsetting is that it increases the cost of air travel and so reduces demand. But if offsetting is applied only voluntarily, as at present, even that benefit may be illusory in so far as the offsetting is done by the rich who can afford to keep flying and pay for offsetting. So, for any effect, those people must be provided with genuine offsetting opportunities that are policed to ensure they make an additional contribution. And we also need to recognise that the demand for aviation needs to be reduced overall and very significantly. If we continue to allow aviation to expand, and make increasing contributions to emissions, the cost of halting climate change by reducing emissions from other sources increases very considerably. Aviation must make its own contribution to emissions reduction and the most effective way of achieving that is to increase taxes on flying, progressively but quite rapidly. The longer this is put off the more rapid the increases in taxation will need to be. And to avoid the impact falling only on middle income people the taxes need to be structured to ramp up for frequent flyers.

Rebekah's picture

Comment: 

We need to move away from the responsibility being on the consumer and place it firmly on the corporate.I don't get to decide what tax I pay, why should I get to decide what green offsetting I feel like? Corporations should be audited exactly as they are with HMRC to understand their full environmental footprint and be taxed accordingly. That tax should then be centrally and authoritatively invested in offsetting. The increased tax will affect prices which will allow consumers to decide if they want to pay the costs....

Sebastian K.'s picture

Comment: 

I do not fully agree.
If we, for instance, do offset all GHG emissions from airlines or coal industry with planting trees by 2025, this can be an enourmous achivement for the planet, right? Surely emissions need to go to zero next, but this is a goal which can not be achieved that quickly.
The benefit of offsetting is that it is allows to have an effect very soon and, at the same time certainly it raises costs, so supports the reduction of fossil fuel consumption on the way to zero.
Any ideas about this?

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About the author

Andrew Murphy's picture

Director, Aviation