Should You Pay For Carbon Offsets When You Fly?

Most domestic airlines and many international carriers offer the option of paying for a carbon offset when you fly, but relatively few people take advantage of them. Is there any point in making flying more expensive, and does it make any real difference to the health of the planet?

While the details vary between airlines, the principle of carbon offsets works in largely the same way. Consumers agree to pay an additional sum for their ticket (based on the distance travelled and the kind of aircraft used), and that sum is then paid into some form of scheme which carries out environmental improvement projects. The most obvious example is planting new forests, but other schemes have included funding the rollout of longer-life light bulbs or helping manufacturing facilities reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. Airline travel is routinely figured as one of the major sources of man-made carbon dioxide in the environment, so the offset is intended to help reduce that impact.

It’s a worthy-sounding enough principle, but many people resist it. A couple of years ago, I was helping a staunchly-vegetarian cousin book some European flights. When we got to the offset question, I was a tad surprised when he said he didn’t want to pay it. His argument? “Compared to the methane from cows, it doesn’t make much difference.”

The actual reasoning might vary, but my cousin is far from alone. One 2008 analysis suggested that less than 1% of Qantas and Virgin Blue passengers elected to pay the offset, while just over 10% of Jetstar passengers did so. In its most recent environmental report, Qantas says a total of 250,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions were offset by customers in 2008/2009 — a tiny proportion of its overall emissions.

Why the resistance? One likely explanation is simple cheapness: most people will kick back against paying more than they have to for travel. As any listener to commercial talkback radio will tell you, there’s also a vocal tranche of the population which doesn’t believe in global warming, and hence wouldn’t see the point of paying an offset. Finally, there’s potential scepticism about whether funds spent on carbon offsets will actually end up being used for beneficial projects — there’s a section in Qantas’ FAQ about its offset program which covers that exact issue, for instance. For what it’s worth, given that the local schemes are all government-certified (as we’ll discuss below) it seems to me unlikely that they could be easily set up as a siphon for additional profits.

Just how much does it cost?

For domestic legs, the offset fee isn’t necessarily that high. As you can see in the illustration above, a return flight from Sydney to Adelaide on Qantas attracts a total offset charge of $2.69. Feeding that into the alternative calculator at Carbon Planet (which we’ve mentioned before on Lifehacker produces a charge of $12.50. When we first tested that calculator in 2008, it came up with much higher figures; the difference is less marked today, but demonstrates that there are many ways to calculate such a figure, depending on the assumptions you make about aircraft usage, on-ground factors, fuel types and other factors. Self-evidently, overseas flights will attract a higher total. But the key point here is that even with a pricier calculator, the total added cost is still relatively small as a proportion of the total price. (Note that while airlines are obliged to quote compulsory taxes when advertising prices, they’re not obligated to quote carbon offset costs, since consumers can choose whether or not to pay them.)

While I suspect the most common reaction to such charges is something along the lines of “I’m not paying that”, there’s also another potential counter-reaction: that the sum doesn’t actually sound high enough. We’re constantly told how damaging air travel is, so it’s often difficult to make the mental leap in multiplying our individual contribution across all the passengers on a flight.

In Australia, the major schemes for contributing towards carbon offsets have all been government-certified. Prior to 2010, this was done under a scheme known as Greenhouse Friendly. Since mid-2010, the active scheme has been the National Carbon Offset Standard Carbon Neutral Program. Qantas is certified under the new scheme; Virgin Blue and Jetstar have both said they are committed to transitioning to the new scheme, but haven’t set a firm date for doing so.

Is there any point?

A couple of years ago, we ran a post on how to develop a personal green travel policy, and highlighted paying an offset as one of the obvious things to do. Two years later, I can’t see that much has changed. Even if you’re slightly suspicious of the motivation of the companies involved and suspect they’re doing it for publicity as much as genuine concern, contributing funds towards carbon abatement projects clearly does more for the planet than doing nothing whatsoever.

That’s not to say that it’s the only thing anyone should do: avoiding unnecessary flights, using public transport when you do arrive at your destination and reducing fuel consumption in other areas of your life are all worthy goals that should be pursued in tandem. But if you do need to fly, offsetting seems to make more sense than mere apathy.

Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman routinely pays for carbon offsets, but still prefers to gloat about the fact that he doesn’t own a car. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.

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