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Should you buy carbon offsets?

Aviation has a hefty carbon footprint but are carbon offsets the answer? CHOICE investigates.

airplane flying overhead
Last updated: 16 May 2017

In 2015, airlines spewed 781 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, representing about 2% of man-made CO2 emissions. If global aviation was a country, its COemissions would be ranked 7th in the world, between Germany and South Korea.

And as flying becomes cheaper and more popular, the problem is heading skyward. Global passenger air traffic grew by 5.2% from June 2015 to June 2016 and emissions are growing at around 2-3% a year.

While many industries are innovating to cut emissions, the airline industry doesn't yet have commercially available low-carbon fuel options.

Airline travel has never been more popular or more dangerous to the planet.

Enter carbon offsets. For over seven years, Qantas and Virgin Australia have offered passengers the chance to add carbon credits to the cost of their tickets, providing finance for projects around the world that have achieved greenhouse gas emission reductions. 

The projects may restore or protect forests, develop renewable energy or increase energy efficiency, and can also bring social benefits to the local communities involved. According to the International Air Transport Association over 30 airlines around the globe offer carbon offsetting to passengers.

But there's a problem: most of us just don't buy them.

The numbers don't lie

According to Qantas and Jetstar, only one in ten passengers choose to pay to offset the emissions from their flight, and the company says it has the largest passenger carbon offsetting program in the world.

Virgin says that less than 1% of its emissions were voluntarily offset by passengers in 2014/2015. And the amount of carbon offsets in tonnes bought voluntarily by Virgin passengers has dropped by over 50% from 2011/12 to 2016/17. 

For the same period, Qantas and Jetstar's results were proportionally similar, with 1.2% of emissions offset by passenger-purchased carbon offsets.

Why don't people buy carbon offsets?

A global study of passengers and their willingness to buy carbon offsets identified the cost, a lack of understanding about carbon credits and emissions from aviation, mistrust in the value of carbon offsets, and the perception that airlines should shoulder more of the cost of offsets instead of passing it on to customers as reasons passengers are reluctant to offset their flights.

Where does your money go?

All of the money used to purchase the carbon offsets goes to the projects; the airlines do not take a cut.

Virgin purchases globally recognised Verified Carbon Units, and has recently focused on units from the Tasmanian Land Conservancy's Five Rivers project.

Qantas and Jetstar tend to use a portfolio of domestic and internationally-generated abatement, including from Australian savanna burning projects.

Are carbon offsets accredited?

All voluntary carbon offset purchases with Virgin Australia, Jetstar, Tigerair Australia and Qantas are certified under the Australian Government's Carbon Neutral program and meet the requirements of the Government's National Carbon Offset Standard (NCOS). They have been assessed as robust and eligible sources of abatement.

The NCOS defines what a genuine voluntary offset is, as well as the requirements for calculating offsets and monitoring the projects.

Are carbon offsets effective?

Carbon offsets have many detractors and some failures in the past.

Professor Will Steffen from the Climate Council tells CHOICE that land-based carbon offsetting (such as tree planting) does not tackle the carbon that has been added to the atmosphere through fossil fuel use. Burning fossil fuels releases carbon that has been stored underground for thousands of years, effectively removed from the atmospheric carbon cycle. It upsets the carbon balance.

Steffen says:

Taking up carbon into land systems simply means we are putting back some of the carbon that was earlier transferred from land to the atmosphere. We are not reducing any of the new carbon added through burning fossil fuels such as aviation fuels.

The Global Carbon Project, which supports climate research, advises that the best carbon offset projects avoid emissions from fossil fuel use. These include:

  • reducing fossil fuel energy consumption through energy efficiencies
  • replacing fossil fuel-based energy with low- or zero-carbon renewable energy
  • reducing fossil and other fuel emissions through cleaner energy production (e.g. methane capture for power generation).

None of the schemes that are described on Virgin Australia or Qantas's websites meet the Global Carbon Project criteria outlined above. Qantas's New Lao Stove Project avoids carbon emissions by improving the efficiency of cooking stoves in Cambodia, reducing wood burning. But it doesn't tackle carbon released from burning fossil fuels.

However, there is significant worth in the projects beyond just balancing land-based carbon. Projects may direct global finance to bring valuable social, health, environmental and economic benefits to impoverished or climate-change affected communities.

The New Lao Stove Project has reduced wood collection from native forest ecosystems, reduced people's exposure to pollution from fires, and created jobs through a local industry in the making and selling of the stoves.

Problems can arise where global carbon markets intersect with local communities and livelihoods. Research into the April Salumei rainforest protection program in PNG (in which Qantas invests) revealed problems where carbon mitigation and national interests were prioritised over local interests. This resulted in conflicts and inequity around the distribution of money and resources.

The paradox is that this globally accredited REDD (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) project has also been hailed as a pioneering carbon offset program in PNG. Its genesis is described in great detail in a feature in The Guardian.

How does flying impact your carbon footprint?

Flying economy from Sydney to London return produces the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as running the average air conditioner in the living room during the day for 7133 hours.

Unfortunately, flying is the fastest way for an individual to fry the planet. 

Flying economy from Sydney to London return produces the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as running the average air conditioner in the living room during the day for 7133 hours.

See the table below showing emissions calculations per seat for various flights.

Comparing CO2 emissions from different flight routes

Return flight and seat class

Emissions per seat (COequivalent)
Sydney to Brisbane, Economy 381kg
Perth to Melbourne, Economy 1346kg
Sydney to London via Abu Dhabi, Economy 10,700kg
Sydney to London via Abu Dhabi, Business 20,062kg
Driving a mid-range car for 12,000km 2000kg
Figures from ATMOSFAIR

What else are airlines doing to cut their emissions?

Aviation emissions aren't covered by the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. Instead, in October 2016 the UN's International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and its member states signed a deal to tackle emissions from international flights through reductions elsewhere.

The deal doesn't rely on the development of low-carbon biofuels, but instead it broadly aims to offset the annual increases in total CO2 emissions from international flights above 2020 levels through a UN global carbon offset scheme called CORSIA (Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation). These offsets are purchased by the airlines, separate to those on offer to passengers for voluntary uptake.

The recent agreement has been hailed as aviation's 'Paris Moment' but many NGOs don't believe this is ambitious enough and it may fail to produce meaningful environmental outcomes.

"The aviation industry, if they were treated as a country, would be the seventh biggest emitter so curtailing their emissions is crucial if we are to tackle climate change," Will Steffen of the Climate Council says. "A levy on every air ticket which goes towards research on carbon-neutral aviation fuels would be a more scientifically meaningful way to reduce aviation emissions in the long-term."

Currently, 11 airlines around the world are voluntarily buying carbon offsets, separate to passengers purchasing offsets. From 2012-2014 Qantas purchased offsets for 800,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.

Both Qantas (which includes Jetstar) and Virgin Australia purchase carbon offsets for their staff duty flying, and Qantas offsets its ground vehicle fuel operations.

How much do offsets cost, and can I source my own?

You can calculate the amount of emissions attributable to your seat on a flight (in kg of CO2 equivalent) at Atmosfair, which will also sell you offsets. Compared to Qantas, Atmosfair attributes a much higher offset cost to a Sydney to London flight via Abu Dhabi of $177.67, indicating the discrepancy between calculations and offset programs.

Should we buy carbon offsets?

If you really need to fly, then carbon offsets can ameliorate the impact.

But carbon offsets should always be the last step in any moves to reduce the carbon footprint of an individual or a company. Reducing energy use and emissions-intensive activities, and switching to renewable energy should be the priority. 

The efficacy of carbon offsetting programs in reducing global emissions and tackling climate change is disputed by NGOs who say it does little to curb emissions growth in carbon-intensive industries.

The airlines' first priority should be given to becoming less dependent on fossil fuels and directly cutting their own emissions. 

What does CHOICE do?

CHOICE purchases carbon offsets through airlines for emissions attributable to staff travel. We're also actively investing in energy efficiency to reduce our power usage, supporting a sustainable culture among staff (e.g. encouraging people to leave the car at home), and installing renewable rooftop solar photovoltaic power. 

CHOICE has also become carbon neutral, and is accredited under the NCOS.

Seven steps to cutting your carbon footprint when travelling

  1. Reduce or eliminate flights with the use of Skype and other technology for work, or travel by train, bus, bike or fuel-efficient car instead, as all of them have a lighter footprint.
  2. Choose an airline that has a better record for disclosing and reducing its emissions – see Atmosfair's Airline Index Also, compare the estimated emissions from various carriers over the same route with Atmosfair.
  3. Choose Economy. A World Bank study showed that a Business Class seat has a footprint three times that of those of us up the back ­- and First Class can be nine times as carbon intensive!
  4. Choose a direct flight over transfer flights where possible to reduce fuel use over distances and take-off.
  5. Pack lightly – every extra gram in your luggage adds to the flight's fuel burn and emissions.
  6. Purchase verified carbon offsets from the airline or through an accredited agency. Offsets that avoid emissions through energy efficiency, or replace fossil fuel based energy with renewable energy are the most effective, with forestry projects ranked last.
  7. Where possible choose sustainable accommodation and tour operators that are recognised for limiting emissions and investing in sustainable operations.
We care about accuracy. See something that's not quite right in this article? Let us know or read more about fact-checking at CHOICE.

Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.