Flying the carbon-neutral skies

Do Travel Carbon Offset Programmes Actually Help?

Just about every airline has one of their own — but are these pricey programmes doing any good, or are they all just fly by night?

Do Travel Carbon Offset Programmes Actually Help?

You might have heard of the term ‘flight shaming’. The Swedes even have a word for it: Flygskam, as popularised by 16-year-old climate change activist Greta Thunberg, after she riveted the world with her flightless 15-day voyage from Plymouth to New York. (At the time of publishing, she’s en route to the COP25 climate summit, due to take place on December 2, predictably without a plane once more.)

And though Thunberg’s team members had to fly to the US to bring the boat back from her New York visit, she said that all their flights would be “offset”. She’s referring to carbon offsetting, an increasingly popular option that airlines are offering to customers to lessen the ecological impact of their trips.

Whether Thunberg’s own trip reduced carbon emissions is yet to be seen: What’s more certain, though, is that people are starting to catch on to the carbon offsetting trend. Recent surveys have shown that up to 1 in 5 people are reconsidering hopping on a plane for their next vacation due to concerns about climate change—and that number’s set to rise.

But that doesn’t mean that you need to tear up your frequent flyer cards and start investing in a sailboat. Actually, you might be surprised to learn that the airline industry is responsible for only 2% of carbon emissions in the world. That’s still a big number, and one that’s expected to climb thanks to expanding airline fleets and a rising middle class; In the last five years alone, carbon dioxide levels emitted by airlines increased by 32%. 

To put that in perspective, the carbon footprint from a round trip from London to New York per passenger would be larger than what someone might produce in an entire year.

In light of all these frightening figures — and the increased hand-wringing from activists and doomsday prophets around the world — many airlines have come up with their own carbon offset programmes to try to lessen their footprints. But the mechanics behind these programmes remain opaque — as do their effects. 

How do these carbon offsetting programmes operate, and more importantly: Do they actually work?

Tipping The Scales

There are usually two clear ways that airlines offer to do carbon offsetting: Either by getting the passenger to purchase biofuel—the more expensive, but more clear-cut path—or through another roundabout method that’s aimed at cutting down on carbon emissions elsewhere in the world.

Lufthansa, for example, engages in reforestation through its Compensaid programme by planting trees in Nicaragua. Air France’s A Tree For You initiative works largely the same. 

Finnair offers the chance for passengers to donate a few euros to purchase emission-free cooking stoves that will be donated to Mozambique, where the use of burning coal remains rampant. 

These options are usually offered to customers as they’re booking tickets online. During the checkout process, they’re given the chance to opt-in to the airline’s carbon offset programme — if they’d like.

The average cost to purchase biofuel for a flight is about S$100 per passenger. And while the alternative methods of carbon offsetting are certainly cheaper, it can also be harder to measure the impacts that they have. Trees don’t grow overnight, after all. 

Obviously, since the burning of jet fuel is the main issue for the airline industry, it stands to reason that purchasing biofuel would be the fastest remedy. But biofuels can cost up to three times more than regular jet fuel — and that’s not even to mention the hidden cost behind it.

But Is It Making Things Worse?

The process behind making biofuels is complex. That’s part of why they’re so expensive. But it also means that they have to be manufactured in very specific refineries.

“These refineries aren’t everywhere, so once you purchase that fuel, you’ll also need to ship it to your airport of choice,” says Sebastian Grossmann, Finnair’s Regional Manager for Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. 

Since biofuels can only be manufactured in specific refineries located around the world, a question then arises: How do you get these biofuels to airports around the world?

That usually involves transporting the biofuels themselves somehow. Airlines would then need to ensure that they’re transported in a way that doesn’t produce more emissions, because really — what would the point be?

It’s also why the use and purchase of biofuel remains somewhat limited. In August, Finnair flew its first biofuel flights departing from San Francisco to Helsinki, in part because it is sourced from SkyNRG’s refinery in California — one of the few refineries in the world capable of producing sustainable aviation fuel.

Even planting trees might not be as innocent as it sounds: From purchasing the trees, driving them out to site, to clearing the land that they’ll be planted in, it’s hard to guarantee that these actions don’t produce more carbon emissions than they would’ve offset. 

So, Do They Help?

That’s the big question. 

The important thing to know is that carbon offsets don’t fix the problem — which are the carbon emissions produced by planes — it merely tries to balance the scales. (Hence the word ‘offset’).

But until the transport industry works out a way to make electric planes viable, passengers will need to find a way to make their existing travel by plane more sustainable. 

Experts say that as long as the organisations that an airline partners with are properly accredited, then carbon offset programmes are the way to go.

“A lot of it is trust-based,” admits Grossmann. “It really is down to the customer to decide if they want to invest into programmes like this, because they have to make that extra effort, and it does cost more.”

What Else Can We Do?

Cost is, of course, the biggest hurdle. Finnair says that they’ve sold about 5700 products for their carbon offset programmes totalling 40,000 euros, mostly to European customers. They say that that’s in part due to how ingrained the mindset of sustainability is in that part of the world — we’re familiar with how supermarkets in Europe charge for plastic bags, a habit that hasn’t quite caught on in Asia yet. 

So if you don’t want to spend your extra dollars on carbon offset programmes just yet, but want to feel a little better about your carbon output on the earth, how else can you help?

The first and easiest tip is to pack less. 

“That’s something that people don’t really think about. Because the more weight the plane carries, the more fuel it burns during takeoff — the time when most carbon emissions are produced,” says Grossmann.

In a 2017 study by two MIT aeronautical engineers, they found that every piece of 7kg hand luggage would equate to almost $500 more fuel being spent — and burnt — by an airline each year.

Also, since planes burn the most fuel during takeoff, opting for a direct flight also helps reduce the amount of carbon produced.

If you have the choice, pick particular airplanes: The Airbus A350, for one, utilises 25% less fuel compared to similar aircrafts.

Naysayers often quip that since the plane is going to take off with or without them, they shouldn’t bother practicing sustainable flying habits. Just look at the backlash that Thunberg received for even attempting to make a change.

But we aren’t saying to stop flying. We propose that we learn to fly a little better. And even if you don’t want to opt into a carbon offset programme, you can still do your part on your next trip: Just pack an outfit (or two) less.

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