Flights and their carbon emissions is a topic I’ve done a lot of reading and thinking about. I’ve posted about the relationship between climate change and sustainable tourism. Flight emissions ranked high on a list I compiled of tourism’s biggest threats to the environment. International flights and their dependence on cheap fuel also appear on the list I translated of ten inconvenient truths about sustainable tourism.
One thing I learned from my Tourism and Environmental Economics degree program is that hidden costs are everywhere. If the environmental consequences of economic activities were internalized into the cost of products, then the “true cost” of most things would be much higher – high enough to change behavior (i.e. discourage people from flying so far and so often). Essentially, we’re not paying enough rent to our ultimate landlord: the earth itself.
One way to correct this market failure is through legislation and taxes. But because climate change is still politically controversial, any real progress here will be too little too late. Another solution is voluntary carbon offsetting. The idea of an offset is a bit abstract. According to the Tufts University Climate Initiative, an offset is:
“A credit for negating or diminishing the impact of emitting a ton of carbon dioxide by paying someone else to absorb or avoid the release of a ton of CO2 elsewhere.”
Carbon offsets are imperfect, complicated, and highly debatable. Skeptics point out that they resemble the medieval Church’s selling of indulgences in the sense that they don’t actually require a change in behavior. In my opinion, in the absence of any real legislation/taxation that demands us to pay closer to the “true cost” for our flights and other inevitable emissions, carbon offsets are the best tool we’ve got for compensation.
Recently, I got a great deal on airfare from Denver to Iceland. At the price I paid, it makes perfect sense to make this long-haul flight for short-term travel, but it’s hard to justify from an emissions standpoint. So I decided to go shopping for carbon offsets – or as I see it, to voluntarily tax myself for my emissions.
As I started to research the best carbon offset companies, I narrowed it down to three different providers. By doing a three-way comparison, I got a better sense of how complicated of a calculation it becomes.
Three Uncertainties about Carbon Offsets
1) How much carbon your flight is emitting. As I compared estimates about how many tons of carbon my round-trip flight from Denver to Reykjavik would be emitting, all the carbon calculators came up with different amounts.
• Sustainable Travel International (STI) calculated 2.6049 tons.
• Offsetters calculated 1.96 tons.
• Planetair calculated 1.01837 tons, with the option to account for high altitude emissions and the “climatic forcing” effect, which then doubled it to 2.03674.
So many variables are involved in this equation that it would be nearly impossible for a perfect calculation. It depends on things like number of passengers, the size of the aircraft, and the altitude of the flight. Long-haul and transoceanic flights reach closer to the stratosphere and have a more intense “climatic forcing” effect.
2) How much money it takes to compensate for emissions. Each of the three organizations listed above quoted a different amount for offsetting my trip.
• STI: $28.65 USD
• Offsetters: $38.08 USD for General Portfolio Projects and $57.11 for Gold Standard Projects
• Planetair: $59.74 USD (when using 2.03674 tons as the emissions calculation)
3) Where the money goes once you’ve purchased a carbon offset. The cost to offset emissions varies even more widely than the total gas emissions. This is because each business has different offset projects that it supports, which range from renewable energy research to energy efficiency programs and emissions reduction programs to sustainable development projects around the world. In my comparison, I looked for the kind of organization it is and whether or not their projects are held to third-party verification.
• STI is a USA-based non-profit organization.
“Sustainable Travel International and its partners are focused on increasing energy efficiency, reducing waste, reducing deforestation, and replacing traditional sources of fuel used for energy including coal, oil and natural gas, with clean and renewable sources like wind and solar power.
• Offsetters is a Canada-based business.
“Your offsets provide funding for new projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These are projects that, because of financial or technical barriers, would not and could not go forward without offset funding.”
• Planetair is a Canadian distributor of myclimate, a Swiss non-profit organization.
“myclimate’s projects reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions directly at the source. Additionally, the transparency of the project development process and the verifiable and measurable reduction of GHG emissions are myclimate’s highest priorities. myclimate only supports renewable energy and energy efficiency projects. All projects must produce demonstrable contributions to the sustainable development of their host communities.”
In the end, I chose the Offsetters general portfolio projects to offset my carbon emissions. I liked the visibility of projects by location on a world map. I browsed the projects by country, by type, and by standard. I learned new things about biogas, landfill gas capture, and other projects with answers to one of the globe’s biggest and most urgent problems.
Bottom line: Carbon offsetting is an imperfect solution, but it’s the best compensation we’ve got for unavoidable emissions. Even if it doesn’t change consumer behavior by forcing us to reduce our carbon-emitting habits, it gives us the opportunity to reinforce clean alternatives that actively address the problem in a measurable and verifiable way.