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.


Comments

    I think part of the problem is that you can't see whats happening with the money.
    You give someone money you expect something in return.
    If I give an airline more money that I don't actually have to give then what do I get back? A warm fuzzy feeling? There needs to be more information about where the money is going and information showing the money in use.
    If my offset goes to planting a tree then show me details of where the tree is planted.

    It seems lame but I think its really the only way to encourage more people to do it.

      Totally agree with you on this. *Some* form of feedback on where the money goes is what I'm waiting for.

    tax this tax that .. what a big joke

      Did you even read the post? It's about voluntary contributions, not compulsory taxes.
      OP--I pay for offset when given the option. And if more did the same instead of believing their small contribution doesn't make a difference, it would make a difference.

    The skeptic in me says that the airline takes a portion of that in hiring people to formulate the scheme and pay someone to look after it.

    Direct donations the best way to go.

    why not the we charge the industry and when we get enough, i'll go buy and plant a tree in my backyard? someone needs to "offset" the carbon, why not me? if they pay me, i'll plant a tree.

    I sometimes pay it, but more often don't. I do not for a minute believe that the tiny dollar amount is enough to offset my flight and fear it's simply a way to make us feel good about living the lifestyles we lead and to make us feel that we don't have to change anything.

    Given how little it costs I don't see why it isn't just included in any case. Don't even tell people about it (unless they ask), just include it, and make your airline carbon neutral in the process.

    When I used to fly regularly for work, the company would pay for the fares and an additional carbon offset fee was a no-no. Maybe participation would improve if it were regarded as a tax-deductible donation (which ultimately it probably ends up as for the airlines).

    The other factor is one of marketing. When you are presented with the option to offset there is no information or report on where your money has gone or is going. It's often presented looking like an extra part of the invoice. You also have to look up the FAQ rather than seeing that this month's contributions are currently going towards wind farms, tree-planting, etc.

    For such a small fee - why doesn't Qantas just pay it? / work it in to the price already?

    How's this for reasoning.. I am not the one making a bajillion dollars in profit from airtravel so I refuse to pay the carbon offset tax. It's simple, if you make a profit over polluting the environment, pay a tax. If you have to pass on the cost of paying that tax to the customer by hiking the fee, so be it. But don't offer a retarded option of "be green" or "it's you responsibility". I'm gonna save a
    dollar where I can.

    I don't own a car either.

    Best way to save on burning extra airplane fuel.
    - Ask everyone to use the rest room before they get on the flight so that there is less weight on the flight from the excess pee. If everyone lost half a liter of urine before they got on, then the entire flight would be about 100Kg lighter.

    - Ask everyone not to use the entertainment units on the flight so you save on electricity during the flight.

    That's better than a $1.23 carbon offset.

    The trouble is that (like big charities) a percentage of the charge goes to paying administration costs. See here for what I mean about charities http://www.charitywatch.org/

    And carbon offset companies aren't even charities. They're in it to make $$$.

    You're better off working out some kind of DIY carbon offset activity. There's an idea for a story Lifehacker. "DIY carbon offsets".

    Interesting article, thanks for the plug for Carbon Planet's flight emissions calculator. (http://flights.carbonplanet.com)

    There are at least two reasons it costs a bit more to offset your flights via Carbon Planet than via the airline directly. The first is a technical matter, Carbon Planet's calculator incorporates a number called a 'Radiative Forcing Index' that adjusts the emissions amount to account for the fact that the GHGs are emitted at high altitude where they cause more harm. The actual RFI is a bit flexible due to all sorts of conditions and most airline take it to be 1 rather than 1.9 which we use (and which we believe is more accurate).

    Another reason for the price difference is that Carbon Planet actually transfers the ownership of the carbon credits you buy into a public retirement account. If you offset your flight through us, we issue you a certificate number that you can then use to look in the MarkIT Registry (one of the official registries of VCUs - a kind of NCOS compatible carbon credit) to verify that the right amount of carbon was 'retired' (ie can no longer be traded) against that certificate number. The offset process with the airlines is a little less transparent. With us you can choose the kind of project you wish to buy credits from, from our portfolio of carbon abatement projects.

    So yes, you pay a little more with us, but you get accurate carbon accounting (something we are specialists in after all), choice of offset types, and transparency with your offsets.

    Personally I'd prefer to see all airlines simply include the offsets with the ticket price however; that would give 100% uptake, result in a lot more emissions reduction funding, and be even less confusing for the traveller. It'd be even better if they also included detailed carbon accounting and some transparency measures too. Sure we'd lose some customers of our flight emissions calculator but frankly I'd prefer to see more wide-reaching carbon neutrality than make a few extra hundred dollars a week.

    Cheers

    Dave
    Founder - Carbon Planet Limited.

    No, the only problem with all of this is that it's all b.s.
    Global warming caused, 'hypothetically' by co2, I mean... co2 is approx. 3% of our atmosphere, while water vapor is approx. 95%, which would make it the #1 cause of global warming...
    Which in essence isn't true anyway...
    The wetlands in the USA produce more co2 than all of our transportation combines, yet the govt. is still trying to protect the hell out of them, eh? And what about them cows? lol Oh, and don't forget that termites give off more co2 than the rest of the living creatures on the planet combined (Science Journal 1982), and volcano's anyone? What about the over 100 uncontrollable burning coal mines underground? I love co2... makes all my vegies grow faster...

    I consider it an insult to my intelligence asking me to pay a carbon offset. If I thought it was a problem I wouldn't fly

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