Opinion | We Cannot Buy a Way Out of The Climate Crisis: Carbon Offsetting for Flyers

With the everpressing importance of the climate crisis comes a variety of things that individuals can do to try to help. One of these methods is the purchase of carbon offsetting for one’s flights. Websites like myclimate.org and atmosfair.de provide an easy way for consumers to neutralise the carbon emission of their flying habits. But, with any quick fix, what on the surface seems like a good way to address the impact of flying on the climate crisis actually raises a plethora of economic and ethical concerns about how we are handling the crisis at hand. 

Before addressing the controversy of the practice, here’s a very brief overview of what carbon offsetting is. Essentially, “Carbon offset schemes allow individuals and companies to invest in environmental projects around the world in order to balance out their own carbon footprints. The projects are usually based in developing countries and most commonly are designed to absorb preexisting or reduce future emissions.” [1] The key points to note about carbon offset schemes is that 1) they focus on neutralisation of carbon emissions, not reduction and 2) they do not require a change in behaviour. 

So, how are individuals actually using this aviation carbon offset scheme? Simply, a consumer can input their departure and arrival destination into a website, like the ones mentioned above, and out pops a calculation of the CO2 emissions of that journey and a way to pay to offset it, usually through investing in sustainable energy projects (wind or solar) or by directly funneling resources into the developing world, such as providing more energy efficient cooking stoves or lightbulbs. [2]

With the climate crisis ever-present and ever-terrifying, this practice has come under fire. The ethical concerns with the practice are significant. The first large concern is that the practice encourages neutralisation instead of reduction of CO2 emissions, that is, it directs focus from the real problem of climate crisis, by implying that change is not urgent and that we can continue with our carbon guzzling behaviour. George Monibot, British writer and environmental activist, puts it like this: 

“Our guilty consciences appeased, we can continue to fill up our SUVs and fly around the world without the least concern about our impact on the planet. How has this magic been arranged? By something called “carbon offsets”. You buy yourself a clean conscience by paying someone else to undo the harm you are causing.” [3]

What he calls attention to is that the practice of carbon offsetting allows people to buy their way out of guilt for contributing to the climate crisis. As well, the scheme does not require any “social or political change,” a necessary step if we are to actually address the crisis. While neutralisation may help on a minute level — it’s definitely better than doing nothing — it draws our attention away from the urgency of the situation. 

If we need to reduce global emissions of CO2 by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 [4], we do not have “the luxury of time.” [5] The practice of carbon offsetting does not take immediate effect. For example, say low energy lightbulbs are made more available to developing nations by virtue of the scheme. “A single low-energy lightbulb, available for just £1 or so, can over the space of six years save 250kg of CO2 – equivalent to a short flight.” [6] The offset from one short flight, spanning a few hours, would then take six years to reverse. We don’t have that kind of time. With only 10 years “left to stop irreversible damage from climate change,” these neutralisation efforts simply don’t act fast enough and more importantly, focus attention away from the urgency of the situation. [7] As Monbiot puts it, “Any scheme that persuades us we can carry on polluting delays the point at which we grasp the nettle of climate change and accept that our lives have to change.” [8]

Another critique of the practice is that it is elitist. Direction of Innovation at the climate change charity, Leo Murray, put it this way: “‘Most of the environmental damage from air travel is caused not by annual family holidays but by very frequent leisure flights by those at the top end of the income spectrum.’” [9] Thus, while the richest contribute heavily to the exacerbation of the climate crisis, they are also those that have the kind of income that enables them to pay their way out of a guilty conscience. In the case of business travel, which is largely what comes to mind when we think about these frequent flyers, there are alternatives to flight travel — actual changes in corporate behaviour that preemptively address the problem, not just retroactively make up for it. With the value of the “ global business travel market forecast to increase from $1.3tn (£1tn) in 2017 to almost $1.7tn by 2023,” it would seem that a change in behaviour is necessary and urgent if we are to prevent climate catastrophe. [10]

Some argue that aviation isn’t actually much of a problem for the climate crisis. It’s true that it is not the biggest pollutant. As of January 2020, only around 5% of carbon emissions come from aviation. [11] If this is the case, why should we care? Because, as already alluded to above, the market is growing, and quickly at that. Air travel is set to double from 2018 to 2038: this kind of growth is dangerous when we consider the urgency and danger of the impending climate crisis. [12] It is clear that we need a drastic change in behaviour to counter the environmental impact of this forecasted growth. 

As we approach 2030, our deadline if you will, we need to publicise and invest in projects that actively reduce our carbon consumption, not simply reduce the exorbitant level of carbon consumption we already have. We need “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” [13] Paying to not change our detrimental habits and continue on the path of self-destruction is nowhere near the kind of solution we should be advocating. 


Featured Image by Mike McBey. Available on Flickr under Creative Commons 2.0. 

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