Carbon offsets for flights

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

02.Does it work?

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.


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