Are flights bad for the environment?

Most of us know that burning fossil fuels is bad for the environment. We probably know that transportation, using fossil fuels, is a high emitter of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Many of us are thinking of car-sharing, buying electric cars if possible, or taking the bus more often. We think about not buying mangoes or avocados that are flown in. We may think about going by train from time to time or walking to the shops.

A plane landing on a runway with mountains in the distance
Photo by Pascal Meier on Unsplash

We probably shudder when we see all the trucks transporting goods on our motorways and imagine the pollution.

However I suspect that many of us (and I have to confess that includes me) enjoy our annual holiday flight. Unfortunately, the numbers of people doing that are increasing rapidly. There are also numerous individuals who enjoy multiple holidays per year, and of course there are the business travellers. (Although these will probably decrease with new technology and the aftermath of Covid 19: see this Guardian article.)

Clearly there are also the emergency flights we need to make to help family. Of course many of us also have family that we miss, in far off places.

Flights therefore make an important contribution to our carbon dioxide emissions. The latest figures here show that they produce about 2.5% of the world’s carbon emissions. (This is complicated as there are other effects from flying that are bad for the atmosphere.)

Many travellers do reflect on the contribution of their flights to global warming. Often they believe that they can reduce the problem by paying for carbon offsets with their flights. Frequently we are told about this by the airline company, although this is changing.

Is tree-planting good for carbon offsets?

A beautiful forest with many old trees
Photo by Lukasz Szmigiel on Unsplash

What is a carbon offset?

“It is an action intended to compensate for the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as a result of industrial or other human activity.”

Obviously, it works several ways. Purchasing carbon offsets would contribute to an airline company’s commitment to reduce its environmental impact. It should contribute to reducing our emissions overall. It also serves to reduce individual guilt.

Are carbon offsets for flights popular?

There are many companies out there that offer offsets. They plant trees or contribute to various other projects that are intended to help balance the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

A quick search of the internet shows a large number of companies that sell this idea. This article in Wired gives a broad picture.

Research has shown that numerous travellers are willing to pay for these offsets.

It appears that it is also possible to pay for offsets to balance your lifestyle. The carbon footprint of the average American is 16.6 tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere. With Cool Effect (a carbon offsetting company) it costs $242.69 to offset that amount.

Clearly there are quite a number of possibilities in this area. This article explains that it is now possible (for example) to pay for the planting of Giant Sequoias. Apparently this will capture carbon over the lifetime of one’s children, thus reducing their carbon footprint.

Giant Sequoias

Giant sequoia trees
Photo by Josh Carter on Unsplash

Carbon Offsetting is also found on a much bigger scale worldwide. Many countries have used this type of offsetting to reduce their official emission figures. Nationally Determined Contributions, are a feature of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. They were designed to help countries to define their long-term climate goals. They often make use of off-setting on their route to net-zero emissions. Countries typically plan to make as many reductions in emissions as they can. Then they anticipate using offsets to deal with the last “difficult to eliminate” emissions.

This is important. We need to cut our carbon emissions as fast as possible to avoid drastic global warming in the future. Offsetting on a global scale, while offering many possibilities for emissions reductions, can be open to different forms of corruption. It is seen by many as a way for governments and multinationals to avoid thinking seriously about reducing their emissions. Greenpeace believes it is a con where companies and governments try to meet their carbon reduction targets while still emitting carbon. (See this article.)

Nationally Determined Contributions

A luminous globe of the Earth above an outstretched hand
Photo by Greg Rosenke on Unsplash

Does it work?

This question seems to have a number of responses. They range from yes it is a wonderful idea, to no it is not effective. There is also the worry that it can be really detrimental to indigenous people and open to serious corruption.

Offsetting schemes

This interesting article by VOX on carbon offsetting shows that in late 2019 there was more than a 700% increase in businesses, organisations and individuals taking up Cool Effect’s off-setting scheme

Ecoact, a company trying to make a difference to people’s lives, describes the sorts of projects it is involved in. For example, providing cleaner cooking stoves to poorer families, safeguarding forests or protecting biodiversity in some way.

Obviously, companies selling the idea believe it is a good thing, although they do vary in their offerings. Some concentrate on planting trees. However more and more of them concentrate on products that help to improve lives in developing countries. These can be clean burning stoves for cooking, paying people not to cut down trees, or paying rice farmers to do things differently, thus producing less methane.

The issue here is that planting trees could be good for the longer term. That does not take carbon emissions out of the atmosphere right now. Most trees do not reach their full capacity to absorb carbon till they are between 15 and 35 years old.

We do not have that time. We must lower our emissions now.

The other ideas (which more of the reputable companies are adopting) are designed to take up carbon in the present.

Offsetting globally can be an issue for indigenous people. At COP 26 in Glasgow last year there were many such groups protesting about the use of offsets and their detrimental effects. This article in the Guardian shows the effects on small farmers of land deals by foreign governments and transnational companies. Often these farmers are evicted and left struggling to survive in order for the land to be used for offsets.

Is it a good idea?

On an individual level:

Responsible Travel says No. They quote environmentalist George Monbiot who says “Buying and selling carbon offsets is like pushing the food around on your plate to create the impression that you have eaten it.

Yes … insofar as it’s better than nothing, says James Higham from the University of Otago in New Zealand in this article. He believes it can encourage users to think about their behaviour.

Forbes Magazine thinks it is a great idea.

On a government and multinational level: it is seen (but not by everybody) as probably necessary for countries to reach net-zero by 2050. On the other hand the scheme is obviously open to abuse by some powerful emitters.

So where does that lead us?

There is a great deal of controversy over this and no clear answer. After doing a lot of research I believe, certainly for flights, that it can be useful. If the companies are reputable then it is likely we are saving some emissions. We are also improving people’s lives at the same time.

However it is clear that for it to work we must not do it in order to assuage our guilt. It must be part of a plan to reduce our personal emissions over time. We must also ensure we cut down on the number of flights we take.

Remember to use a reputable airline company when buying carbon offsets. Check that they are using the money to properly reduce carbon emissions.

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