Can You Really Offset Your Carbon Footprint From Flying?

by | Jul 26, 2023 | Travel

guvendemir via Getty ImagesAir travel produces significant carbon emissions. There are many important steps to take when traveling by plane, from packing a pair of compression socks to ensuring your passport is up to date if flying internationally. But there’s one important action item that many travelers overlook ― calculating your carbon emissions.No matter how much you try to reduce the environmental footprint of your vacation or work trip, the fact remains that flying produces significant carbon dioxide emissions. According to the International Council on Clean Transportation, air travel accounts for about 3% of global carbon emissions, and the Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that flying produces 10% percent of all U.S. transportation-related emissions.Advertisement

That’s why many airlines, booking platforms and third-party companies have started offering “carbon offsets” to help travelers neutralize their environmental impact. But these offerings have been criticized over their actual impact (or lack thereof), with some even calling them a “scam.”Below, experts break down how carbon offsetting works, what you should know about its impact and other factors to keep in mind when it comes to your travel emissions.What is carbon offsetting?“A carbon credit is a science-backed, third-party audited certificate that says that one ton of carbon pollution has been avoided or removed from the atmosphere,” Campbell Moore, managing director of carbon markets at The Nature Conservancy, told HuffPost. “‘Offsetting’ is the act of using the carbon credit. So, if I fly to a friend’s wedding across the country, and as a result one ton of carbon dioxide goes into the atmosphere, I would buy a carbon credit and use it to offset the one ton of carbon pollution I put in the atmosphere by flying.”Basically, it’s presented as a way to compensate for the carbon dioxide emissions you produce by flying or through other activities by reducing an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide elsewhere.Advertisement

“Some offsets use nature-based solutions ― like preserving or planting forests,” explained Jodi Manning, vice president of marketing and corporate partnerships at the carbon offset nonprofit Cool Effect. “Others use technological solutions, like carbon capture or replacing carbon-emitting energy sources with green technology.”She noted that carbon offsetting has become increasingly popular in recent years, with Cool Effect’s first-quarter analysis this year showing a 186% year-over-year increase in travel offset purchases compared to 2022. “Not all carbon credits are created equal,” Moore said. “The science on how to measure the carbon benefit of a carbon credit project is changing really rapidly. This is a good thing but means that some types of carbon credits are based on newer, stronger science than other types which are still catching up on the science.”It’s not just individual travelers engaging with offset programs. Large companies and governments also play a big role in this practice’s growth, as the majority of Fortune 500 companies have made a public commitment to reducing their climate impact. “A good corporate climate target focuses on reducing direct carbon pollution from the company’s business ― for example, by switching to EVs or renewable energy ― and then uses carbon offsetting to clean up remaining carbon pollution that is too expensive or technologically impossible to address in other ways,” Moore said. “Governments often use carbon offsetting as a policy tool as well because, when designed well, it can speed up overall climate progress and reduce the cost.”Advertisement

What’s the issue with carbon offsets?Many companies tout their use of third-party organizations to verify their carbon offsetting projects and ensure the money is properly invested and impact correctly measured. There’s much talk of how these programs help expand clean energy infrastructure and save vulnerable ecosystems.But a lot of climate expert …

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