Our step by step guide to carbon offsetting your flights

A guide to carbon offsetting - Photo by Jacky Lo on Unsplash

Here’s our step by step guide to carbon offsetting your flights, including what carbon offsets are, how they work and how effective they are, the costs involved, and how to choose the right offset scheme.


Sometimes we really have to pinch ourselves that our full-time work allows us to travel to some of the most beautiful parts of the world while experiencing many incredible things. What’s more, somehow we’ve managed to build an actual business out of our biggest love, which is pretty mind-blowing to us every single day.

But our dream job has also very much opened our eyes to the dramatic impact humans are having on our planet. From terrible plastic pollution just about everywhere to over-tourism in so many cities, man-made climate change and rising sea levels in the tropics to deforestation of beautiful natural environments to make way for agricultural grazing; we’ve seen some of the worst environmental destruction firsthand.

Over the last few years on the road, we’ve also become acutely aware of our own impact. Though we also hate to admit it, between our everyday lives and the amount of time we spend travelling for work, we’re also very much complicit in the earth’s impending ecological disaster, daily. 

As we moved into 2019, it was no longer good enough for us to merely recognise the role we play, but to fundamentally change our approach to life and travel by pledging to live as sustainably and ethically as possible. We encouraged our followers to do the same, and the reaction was incredible. Thousands of people joined our pledge, committing to take positive action, reduce their emissions/plastic/meat consumption and simply travel/live more sustainably moving forward. It’s been pretty dang incredible to see. 

If you want to get involved, be sure to head to the ‘Our Pledge’ and ‘Templates’ highlights on our Instagram Stories  

Since then, “how do I reduce the environmental impact of my flying?” has become one of the most common questions we’ve had from our community. It’s a question we'd asked ourselves countless times, so we’ve spent a lot of time lately researching whether there’s anything we can all do - and unfortunately for all of us that love to travel, the findings aren't great. 

Air transport is one of the leading causes of air pollution, contributing 4.9 per cent of human-caused climate change, including emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. In essence, our collective passion to see the world is actually killing it slowly.

So what can we, as consumers, do to reduce the impact of flying on the environment? The obvious answer is fly less or take a train. But for those times when it’s actually impossible to avoid flying, right now the best way to reduce your impact is through carbon offsetting each flight you take. Although contentious, this really is currently the only solution to a global issue. 

In this post, we aim to help you understand what carbon offsetting is, how to offset your flights, how much offsetting costs, and other ways to reduce your environmental impact, so you can travel sustainably. 


A step by step guide to carbon offsetting your flights


WHY ARE FLIGHT EMISSIONS A CONCERN, ANYWAY?

Aircraft use fuel combustion engines which release harmful greenhouse gases into our atmosphere, resulting in the gradual heating of the Earth's atmosphere - global warming. Currently, the aviation industry accounts for 2% of all global greenhouse gas emissions.

While this is a fraction of the emissions released by other industries (livestock account for 14.5 - 18%, electricity and heat for 31%), the growing travel trend and availability of so many short-haul budget flights means that the industry is only growing. After all, the thought of flying somewhere for 45 minutes and only paying £20 instead of sitting on a car or train for 4 hours and paying £50+ can seem the rather more attractive option!

What’s more, recent studies have shown that because planes cruise at high altitudes, they trigger a series of chemical reactions and atmospheric effects that have a greater climate impact.

Although airlines are trying to make changes (albeit slowly), including investing in more fuel-efficient planes on longer routes, carrying more passengers, and using tailwinds, it's not enough. Until industry innovates as required, it’s unfortunately up to us as consumers to lead the way.

a guide to Carbon offsetting your flights

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WHAT IS CARBON OFFSETTING AND HOW DOES IT WORK?

Carbon offsetting is the act of offsetting the emissions of your flight (specifically CO2) by investing in a scheme or project that will help compensate for their emissions. Carbon offsets are typically measured in tonnes of CO2, which can be bought from international brokers, online retailers, or via the airlines you book with.

An example of carbon offsetting could be as follows: The Common Wanderer fly from Melbourne to Bali and produce 2 tonnes of carbon dioxide. To offset our flights, we'd pay $20 to a carbon-offsetting organisation, who invest the funds in a scheme aimed at reducing fossil fuels, such as solar cooking and heating solutions for rural China, or renewable energy generation in Turkey. 

There are many projects you can invest in that generate carbon offsets, including solar, wind, small hydro, geothermal and biomass energy projects that reduce the reliance of fossil fuels. Other projects include investment in energy efficient projects, carbon-sequestration projects (reforestation), and methane capture from landfill or livestock. 

Unfortunately, while the ideal solution would be to pull the existing CO2 from the atmosphere, unfortunately at this stage it’s still seriously costly and yet unproven.


IS CARBON OFFSETTING EFFECTIVE?

Obviously, the most effective way of lowering your aviation-related carbon emissions is to fly less. Where possible, opt for the train or bus alternative rather than jumping on a short flight, and minimise the number of flights you take per year. This is our goal for 2019 and beyond - to only take flights when they’re absolutely necessary, and rely upon more carbon-efficient ground transport to get from place to place instead.

If flying /offsetting is the only available option, there are 4 general criteria that need to be met to ensure that a carbon offsetting program is effective:

  • Quantifiable | The exchange of emissions for offsetting must actually be quantifiable (ie. use a reputable calculator to calculate your overall emission, taking into consideration flight time, distance, meal provision, etc). 

  • Additionality | A carbon offset program can only be effective if you can prove it wouldn’t have happened without your investment. For example, the wind farm you’ve invested in would never have happened without the offsetting of emissions.

  • No leakage | Ensuring that your carbon exchange isn’t about to (deliberately, or otherwise) lead to environmental destruction, displacement, or create more gas emissions. 

  • Permanency | If you’re planting new mango groves in southern India, for example, will that forest remain standing in perpetuity - not razed to the ground to make way for a new development?

Overall, carbon offsetting programs that meet these criteria can help reduce carbon-dioxide emissions in our atmosphere, increase investment in green technologies, as well as raising awareness of the impact of climate change with the general population.

It is, however, a great bone of contention as many sceptics see carbon offsetting as band-aid solution to a far wider issue. 

Indeed, British environmentalist Tony Juniper calls carbon offsetting "a smokescreen used to avoid real measures to tackle climate change. We urgently need to cut our emissions, but offsetting schemes encourage individuals, businesses and governments to avoid action and carry on polluting”.

In essence, the idea of paying to pollute won't encourage rapid change, which is what the planet urgently needs in order to meet the Paris climate agreement. 

While that may be the case, we're of the belief that any small solution helps, and while it's not possible for us, or you, to completely reduce emissions, offsetting is the only way we have of ensuring that our actions don't continue to contribute to climate change.

A guide to carbon offsetting your flights
A guide to carbon offsetting your flights


HOW IS CARBON OFFSETTING CALCULATED?

Carbon offsetting is calculated by estimating the emissions attributed to air travel per passenger. 

Various calculators have been created to measure how much carbon dioxide is produced per flight, using a multitude of factors including aircraft type, class of travel, yield, cargo and route specific data such as wind conditions.

For example, the emissions produced per passenger for a first class flight from Sydney to London will differ greatly from an Easyjet flight from London to Paris, however these calculators aim to measure this effectively to provide a realistic idea of your carbon dioxide production, and the cost involved to offset this. 

The carbon offset calculator we use is Carbon Footprint's calculator, which takes into account the route distance, average consumption data, and flying class (economy, premium economy, business, first). 


HOW MUCH DOES IT COST TO CARBON OFFSET YOUR FLIGHT?

Due to the multitude of factors associated with flying, such as aircraft type, class of travel, yield, cargo and route specific data such as wind conditions, the cost to offset flights differs greatly person to person, route to route. 

To give you an idea, we recently flew from Melbourne to Denpasar with Jetstar (no meals or entertainment package) and offset our flights for the cost of around AUD $30. We've provided a few more examples below using Carbon Footprint's flight calculator:

Melbourne to London via Singapore return | USD $30 - 70 (based on a carbon footprint of 2.76 metric tonnes of CO2)

London to Paris one way | USD $3 - $17 (based on a carbon footprint of 0.03 metric tonnes of CO2)

Frankfurt to New York return | USD $7 - $17 (based on a carbon footprint of 0.92 metric tonnes of CO2)

From our point of view, the price of offsetting a flight is highly affordable, especially when you consider the reduction in airfare prices over the last 10 years, especially in Europe and Asia, where competition has driven the price of airfares to an all time low.

How to carbon offset your flight emissions


SO, SHOULD YOU CARBON OFFSET?

If you're like us, and fly often, then yes, you definitely should. Unfortunately there's no way of stopping the CO2 emissions released by aircraft, so donating to a carbon offsetting program is the next best solution. 

Fortunately, the cost isn't a huge barrier, with most schemes offering offsetting options for as little as USD $2. The schemes, though, must be of a high standard for there to be any real positive effect. 

Done well, in the long run carbon offsetting can genuinely reduce emissions by providing funds to develop low carbon technologies and social projects, helping to transition to low carbon dependant societies.


WHICH CARBON OFFSETTING SCHEME SHOULD YOU USE?

So you've decided carbon offsetting is a good way to reduce your personal impact of flying? Good. Now you're probably asking which carbon offsetting scheme you should use.

AIRLINE CARBON OFFSETTING SCHEMES

Some global airlines allow you to offset your flights directly. The carbon offsetting option is often included in the booking process, making offsetting your flights easy. Some airlines which offer globally recognised and verified carbon offsetting programs include:

  • Qantas Future Planet is Qantas's Gold Standard verified carbon offsetting scheme aimed at helping mitigate environmental impact and nourishing local communities

  • Jetstar | Jetstar offers the ability to offset flights, focusing on conservation, restoration and innovation

  • KLM | KLM's CO2ZERO scheme enables passengers to offset their flight's by investing in CO2 reduction projects that focus on at least two UN Sustainable Development goals

  • Air New Zealand | Air New Zealand has partnered with ClimateCare to allow passengers to easily offset their flights by investing in schemes to tackle poverty and improve health, as well as protecting the environment

  • Austrian Airlines | Climate Austria collaboration

  • Air Canada | Air Canada has partnered with Less Emissions to provide a carbon offsetting scheme which has Gold Standard accreditation

  • Brussels Airlines | Brussels Airlines has collaborated with CO2Logic on carbon reduction and socio-economic projects certified by the UN and Gold Standard 

Some global airlines, such as Emirates and Qatar, prefer not to offer offset opportunities as they believe it's up to the emitter, not the consumer, to fund offsetting schemes. If this is the case, there are a number of direct carbon offsetting schemes. 

VOLUNTARY CARBON OFFSETTING SCHEMES

There are many carbon offsetting schemes out there, some better than others. As with all purchases, you'll need to chose carefully, to make sure your offsets are going towards worthy projects. Things to consider before offsetting are:

  • What is/are the specific offset project type (s)? And where are such projects located?

  • Are the carbon offset projects of a high quality, and are they permanent?

  • Have the offsets been certified by a recognised standard to ensure quality? 

The Gold Standard is considered to be the best organisation for carbon offsetting your flight emissions. Established in 2003 by the WWF and other international NGO's to ensure carbon offsetting projects contributed to sustainable development, The Gold Standard focuses on:

  • energy efficiency and renewable-energy projects which encourage a shift away from fossil-fuel use and carry low environmental risk

  • social and environmental indicators to ensure the scheme contributes to sustainable development goals in the country where the project is based

  • tree planting projects are excluded

  • projects are independently verified by a third party to ensure integrity

  • projects in developing nations, helping these countries leapfrog fossil fuels and focus on sustainable alternatives

Other carbon offsetting organisations that are reputable are:

  • Atmosfair | A German carbon offsetting company with a industry leading carbon calculator. All Atmosfair projects have to meet the Gold Standard

  • MyClimate | A Swiss not-for-profit who's carbon offset projects have clear additional sustainability benefits. These projects are situated in economically disadvantaged areas

  • Carbon Fund | An American not-for-profit investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency as well as sequestration projects. All the projects are located in the US

A guide to Carbon offsetting flights

How to reduce your emissions without offsetting your flights

Obviously, the best way to reduce your environmental impact is by not flying at all... but then you'd miss out on all the great adventures. Still, there are some simple ways to reduce your emissions without offsetting your flights. They include:

  • Travel local | embrace your local tourism hotspots and get to know your own country

  • Reducing your flying, especially for business | Technology allows you to be present, even from a foreign land, so use Skype or Facetime and dial in, not fly in

  • Use trains or buses | If you're travelling short haul (under 500kms), especially in Europe or parts of South East Asia, catch a train, or bus. Sure, they still release carbon, but at a far lower rate

  • Fly with budget airlines | This may sound absurd, but due to high yields per plane, most budget airlines have a reasonable per passenger CO2 emission rate. It isn't great, but it's better than flying in a half full plane

  • Fly economy | For those budget travellers, this isn't an issue! But for those who like the finer things in life, travelling in first or business class is far worse that economy, due to yield. If you're concerned about the environment, consider flying economy next time

Catching a train is a great way to reduce carbon pollution
Catching a train is a great way to reduce carbon pollution

Have you carbon offset your flights? Or do you have more tips on how to carbon offset carbon emissions? We’d love to hear them – share in the comments below and help out your fellow travellers!


 

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