Can We Really Offset Our Climate Guilt?

Increasing awareness of environmental issues in recent years has meant that many of us have made changes to our lifestyles, whether that’s buying a reusable water bottle, shopping second-hand or eating less meat. However, we can’t ignore another feature of modern life that is for many people the biggest impact on their personal carbon footprint. Air travel. 

The contribution of commercial aviation to CO2 emissions is huge; UK Airports saw more than 2,230,000 flights take off or land in 2017 with well over half of passengers being holiday makers.

But with the proposed runway expansion at Heathrow airport recently being declared illegal due to incompatibility with the UK’s carbon emissions commitments and ‘flight guilt’ increasing, public opinion is beginning to shift.  

Airlines are keen to get people back on side and several companies seem to be offering a suspiciously easy solution. 

Carbon offsetting is the idea that you, or your airline, donates money to environmental projects in order to compensate for the damage of your travel. There are several tools online that allow you to calculate the cost as well as companies willing to do it all for you.

But is this too good to be true? The relatively low cost of offsetting flights calls in to question whether these schemes can meaningfully impact our emissions.  Climate Care’s online tool estimates that an almost 7000 mile flight from London to New York would cost as little as £12.45 to offset. 

Companies such as Climate Care use carbon credits to calculate offsetting prices, 1 carbon credit represents a tonne of CO2 released into the atmosphere so your London to New York flight which on average releases 7 tonnes of CO2 per passenger is worth 7 credits or £12.45. 

Companies like Climate Care say that this money is then used on projects such as reforestation, distribution of more efficient cooking stoves or financing renewable energy.  

However, very little information is available about the actual credit impact of these actions, and recent reports from the European commission on climate action suggest that the carbon credit system itself is flawed. 

Whilst it’s hard to imagine that donating to charities combatting the climate crisis could be a bad thing, the danger is that the ease and low cost of donating to assuage our climate guilt could encourage more frequent air travel or more frivolous energy use.  

Offsetting may not be the easy fix it’s made out to be, but cutting down how much we travel by plane could make a big difference to our personal carbon footprint. 

image source: iStockphoto