Carbon offsets for flights

Can you pay extra to make your air travel carbon neutral?
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  • Updated:21 Jun 2007

01 .What is it?

Aeroplane in the sky

These days climate change, and what we can do as individuals to address it, is on everyone’s mind. But even if you have an energy-efficient home, regularly walk or cycle to work, recycle waste and buy GreenPower electricity, one return flight to Europe could effectively undo all your good work. One long haul flight could cause the same or more greenhouse gas emissions per person than a whole year’s electricity use in your home.

According to tour operator Intrepid Travel (an advocate of ‘responsible tourism’), the travel industry is the fastest-growing contributor to carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the world. Experts say the global warming effect of airplanes could be two to four times higher than other forms of transport, as the emissions occur at higher altitudes. But is it possible to fly guilt-free by buying ‘carbon offsets’?

Enter carbon-neutral flights. The idea is you negate the environmental damage your flight has caused by paying to remove a quantity of carbon equal to the emissions your seat on the flight was responsible for. The extra money you pay may be put towards tree-planting schemes to 'soak up' the CO2 emitted by planes, invested in renewable energy schemes, such as wind and solar power generators, to fund schemes for methane capture or to improve energy efficiency.

Please note: this information was current as of June 2007 but is still a useful guide today.

What's available

There are about seventeen companies in Australia offering carbon offsets, and now airlines and travel companies are getting in on the act.

  • Virgin Blue offers carbon-neutral domestic flights approved under the Greenhouse Friendly initiative.
  • Overseas, arilines such as British Airways and Scandinavia’s SAS offer carbon offsets for flights.
  • Qantas doesn’t offer offsets or a carbon-neutral fare but has a fuel conservation program that’s working towards a reduction target equivalent to 80,000 fewer vehicles on Australian roads by the end of 2007/08.
  • All flights from Australia sold by Intrepid Travel have a carbon offset payment included in their price. The money goes towards projects run by Origin Energy aimed at lowering CO2 emissions. Flight Centre also offers carbon offsets from a company called Cleaner Climate.

What it costs

The price of carbon offsets varies wildly because of how different companies calculate emissions, the type of offsets they sell, and their prices. The carbon impact of flying also appears to differ greatly, depending on the calculator and assumptions you use. Using different websites to calculate the carbon impact of a flight can give widely different answers; these calculations are rarely subject to independent verification.

For example, when we checked in April, we got the following results for the carbon impact and offset price for a return flight from Melbourne to London (around 33,000 km round trip) from four Australian websites:

  • Climate Friendly's calculator estimates the emissions from the trip at 10 tonnes. It’d charge $220.95 to make this return trip carbon-neutral.
  • Easy Being Green For a flat price of $88 for long international flights of up to 40,000 km, the company says it will “reduce greenhouse gas pollution by 4.4 tonnes”. You’ll also receive ‘carbon neutral’ luggage tags and a certificate.
  • Elementree calculates the flights’ impact as 5 tonnes and says it will plant and protect 21 trees on your behalf for $52.50.
  • Greenfleet's calculator estimates the ‘total warming impact’ (including indirect effects of releasing greenhouse gases high in the atmosphere) at 12.1 tonnes, which it equates to 46 trees. This includes greenhouse gas emissions from fuel use only of 4.7 tonnes, equating to 18 trees. The cost to offset the ‘total warming impact’ is $108.23, or $42.35 to offset the emissions from the fuel. 

What you get

A key problem for consumers is that there’s little regulation and no single clearly defined standard for carbon offset schemes. For example:

  • Climate Friendly (the most expensive company in our example), says its prices reflect the high quality of its offsets, which are Gold Standard renewable energy credits. That’s a standard for international renewable energy developed by environmental groups around the world. Climate Friendly also sells accredited GreenPower.
  • Easy Being Green’s offsets are accredited under both the NSW Greenhouse Gas Abatement Scheme and the Federal Government’s Greenhouse Friendly program. The company uses your money to install saving technologies - such as lightbulbs - in homes and businesses.
  • Elementree funds tree-planting and isn’t accredited under any recognised scheme. However, one of its reforestation schemes for the generation of certified carbon credits for the international carbon market is currently under audit by the Greenhouse Friendly program. The company says consumers will be able to buy certified carbon credits from certified projects from the end of 2007.
  • Greenfleet, a not-for-profit charitable trust and registered environmental organisation that’s been around longer than most of its competitors, offers customers carbon neutrality through planting native forests and promoting fuel-efficient technologies and low carbon fuels. It doesn’t have accreditation for its offsets but is seeking this from Greenhouse Friendly.

Find out more about the Greenhouse Friendly scheme.

The bottom line

Offsetting your carbon emissions isn’t really the primary target — prevention is better than cure and almost everyone agrees that we need to reduce our emissions now. There are three steps - for more information see go to the website of the Australian Conservation Foundation.

  • First trying to reduce your own emissions by using energy efficiently in your home and car (and ideally, taking fewer flights).
  • Second, buy renewable energy (we can help you compare the best GreenPower products and prices).
  • Finally, offset the rest, including your flights.

But choose your offset scheme carefully. There are big differences in where they invest your money, how much of your money is actually invested in projects, their prices, how long it’ll take for the project to offset your emissions, whether the offsets are independently audited and their source of accreditation (if any).

Without proper regulation or standardisation, it’s hard to know which carbon-offset scheme to go for. You can’t compare products with confidence. Standardisation (possibly through regulation) of this fast-growing industry is vital, so you can know what you’re buying is bona fide, and to help you compare offers.


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Controversial industry

  • Even green groups don’t agree on whether carbon offsets are a good way to counteract environmental damage.
  • As long as there’s no single mandatory or widely accepted standard for what qualifies as an offset, it’s hard to know whether what you’re being sold will really offset emissions.
  • Critics point to a lack of transparency, standardisation and quality control in offset schemes. There are few restrictions on what companies can offer, and little regulation of the truth and credibility of some environmental claims.
  • What’s more, some argue that offsetting the emissions from flights simply doesn’t work. Environmentalist George Monbiot writes that what’s needed is a new type of fuel and a massive increase in fuel efficiency. In the meantime, his solution is extreme -- he thinks most planes flying today should be grounded because of the environmental damage they cause.

Tree planting doubts

A particular type of offset that’s come in for criticism is tree-planting and forestry schemes -- there’s disagreement over whether it’s an effective way to offset carbon emissions. Arguably, it’s better to invest in renewable energy to replace coal-fired power, instead of trying to offset environmental damage after it’s happened.

  • It’s hard to know whether trees will store enough carbon, and whether carbon the carbon will remain stored, especially when offsets are unregulated.
  • The trees aren’t guaranteed to survive -- one forest fire could suddenly release all the carbon stored for your offsets.
  • Consider what happened to rock band Coldplay, for example, which tried to offset some of the environmental damage caused by the production of its album A Rush of Blood to the Head, but suffered an embarrassment when many of the mango trees planted in India withered and died.
  • Another concern with some tree-planting projects is that they can take decades to deliver on their environmental promises. The Total Environment Centre is critical of tree-planting schemes as a way to offset the damage caused by flights. “The problem is your airline trip emits pollution now, but tree sequestration of carbon would take up to 100 years, and you don't know that those trees will even still be around by then,” it says.

Consumers need independent and reliable guarantees about the long-term viability of projects they’re funding – and for what those projects will actually achieve. The Climate Group, an international NGO, has developed a voluntary carbon standard, expected to launch later this year. We'll keep you posted on its progress.

Greenhouse Friendly scheme

Greenhouse friendly logoThe Greenhouse Friendly logo, pictured, tells you that a product or service meets the standards set by the Australian Greenhouse Office (AGO).

According to the AGO, if you buy products it’s certified, you’re assured their emissions have been offset, or balanced out, by other activities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

A range of projects are covered, including:

  • Projects to offset greenhouse gas emissions (abatement projects).
  • Energy efficiency measures.
  • Waste diversion and recycling.
  • Tree-planting.

More details of the scheme can be found at Greenhouse Friendly or by calling 1300 130 606.