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Carbon offsets. You have heard those words uttered in news reports, glossed over them in a magazine and seen the term when considering flights, but what does it really mean? And is it worth buying into?
Carbon offsetting is the process of compensating for greenhouse gas through schemes that are designed to make corresponding reductions in emissions from other parts of the economy. From donating to wind farms to replanting or protecting parcels of forest in at-risk areas, these offset programs offer a diverse amount of options for travelers. Whilst it seems like a fairly straightforward system that ensures you are making the sustainable decisions transport-wise, it has drawn a fair share of condemnation from environmentalists.
On delving deeper into the definition of carbon offsets, it becomes clear why airline offset schemes have become controversial. Balancing the carbon emitted by your airline seat through the planting of several trees in South America does not involve solely the solitary act of placing the tree in the soil. In order to plant the trees, there are several steps. Firstly, they must be bought from a supplier, transported to a warehouse before being driven out to a site that needs to be cleared prior to them being planted – all these actions produce their own share of carbon emissions, which are not always taken into account. If your offset produces more emissions than if you had done nothing, then it is really not an offset.
Additionally, the act of purchasing an offset to negate your seat’s carbon emissions encourages airlines to not just offer more offsets, but create more flights on which they can sell them. As Kevin Anderson points out in Nature, the carbon offset programs offered by airlines can counter-productive. Anderson argues that, “offsetting is worse than doing nothing… for an offset project to be genuinely low-carbon, it must guarantee that it does not stimulate further emissions over the subsequent century.”
From this perspective, offsetting is counterproductive as it indirectly stimulates the development of new carbon-intensive infrastructure. It reduces the demand for low-carbon alternatives and stimulates airlines to deliver more routes and governments to approves more runways. Instead, those efforts could improve low-carbon travel and communications technologies.
In her book This Changes Everything Naomi Klein explains the shortcomings of big business-driven conservation and mitigation schemes, pointing out that offsets are flawed and that companies prey on one specific aspect of human behavior when attempting to sell these schemes – guilt:
“But most of all, regular, non celebrity people were called upon to exercise their consumer power—not by shopping less but by discovering new and exciting ways to consume more. And if guilt set in, well, we could click on the handy carbon calculators on any one of dozens of green sites and purchase an offset, and our sins would instantly be erased.”
The points raised by Klein and Anderson represent the crux of the argument against offset projects like those supported by airlines: they are not rigorously scientific and their commitment to environmental causes seems more closely linked to monetary considerations than social responsibility.
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Airlines have come under fire for these schemes, especially as they opted out of the Paris Agreement to create their own carbon emission reduction plan that some have called ‘laughable’. Carbon emitted by passenger flights is responsible for roughly 2-3% of the world’s overall emissions and is expected to grow as airlines increase their fleet size from 20,000 to 50,000 by 2050. Airlines are stuck between a rock and a hard place as their own market predictions and environmental goals clash – however, that does not mean they are not trying to reduce their emissions.
Advances in technology have led to new alternatives in aviation, such as the use of biofuels by major carriers like United, Norway’s plan to use electric engines on all short-haul flights by 2040 or Airbus’ development of a hybrid-powered plane planned to take to the skies in 2020. However, these gradual improvements pail into insignificance compared to the year-on-year increase in demand for flights.
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Globally, flights emit around 2% of all greenhouse gas emissions, although this share is slowly increasing. With impending risks from anthropogenic climate change, these emissions pose a serious threat. While reducing overall flight volumes should be the ultimate goal, offsetting is an additional powerful tool that can be used simultaneously. Sometimes, flights are a necessity and carbon offsets are currently the only option.
While the jury is out, and there exist many unsatisfactory schemes, the majority of offsetting options are vetted and monitored by independent third-parties, with the money you pay to offset your flight truly going towards funding their carbon-reducing programs. Whilst these projects may not entirely counteract your own actions or really meet the definition of an “offset”, they are still driving conservation efforts and green research. Carbon offsets are not ideal, but they are an imperfect solution to a complicated problem. At the very least, it remains a mechanism to channel much-needed investment into green energy and conservation.
March 5, 2019 at 11:36AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs