The weather is getting colder and Christmas is right around the corner. Some of us may be staying home, but others are booking flights to various holiday destinations — skiing in the Alps or beaches in Mexico or Hawaii.
What most of us don’t account for when booking these amazing trips is the damage we are doing to the environment. Specifically the large amounts of CO2 that get put into the atmosphere with each and every flight. Nowadays with the advancement in technology we are able to calculate an individual’s carbon emissions for a flight. Airlines then provide a possibility to “offset” (pay) for those emissions. Depending on the distance of the flight, offsets cost $2-60. This money then goes to different environmental schemes. Many focus on preserving forests via REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) programs.
Recent studies show REDD+ projects in Brazil’s Amazon have not been as effective as claimed: there was no significant evidence of reduced forest loss. The International Civil Aviation Organization has approved ineffective REDD+ projects such as these.
Offsets can also be misleading because an individual’s payments do not directly offset emissions. It takes years for a tree to grow and absorb CO2 at full capacity. Another issue arises if (when) global warming leads to more forest fires — resulting in releases rather than storage of carbon.
Carbon offsetting projects paint aviation and airlines in green, which can help them compete, increase sales, and strengthen customer and employee loyalty. But perhaps airlines are using these projects as “smart marketing” rather than helping the environment or focussing on the real issue: reducing aviation emissions.
Bottom line: We should not automatically believe that we are helping the environment when paying for offsets. Instead, we should research individual airline projects for evidence of effectiveness — or maybe just not fly.
* Please help my Environmental Economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice :).