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What's the deal with carbon offsetting your flights?

What’s the deal with carbon offsetting your flights?

I’ve always wondered what the hell happens when I tick the carbon offset option.

Booking flights online can already be confusing (especially budget airlines with their ridiculous amount of extras) and carbon offset just seems like another unnecessary button to ignore. Sometimes I pay it and sometimes I don’t, but every time I sit there and wonder “What on earth does it mean?”.

I have a vague notion that it means the amount of pollution produced is neutralised by planting trees or something, right? Which sounds great and all, but how do I know that the airlines aren’t just pocketing the money or spending it in ways that don’t actually assist the environment?

So I finally decided to do some research, and figure out whether we’re all being played for fools or whether these carbon offsets are actually worth paying. Now I’m going to share my finds with you and hope that we can all understand carbon offsets a little better!


Is the aviation industry actually bad for the environment?

According to the Air Transport Action Group, flights contribute a whopping 705 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere annually. This is about 2% of ALL man-made carbon emissions!

Choice Magazine have also declared that one long haul flight could cause the same or more greenhouse gas emissions per person than an entire year of home electricity usage, and that the effect of airplanes emitting these gases as such high altitudes could be two to four times higher than other forms of ground transport.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty damn scary to me.

What's the deal with carbon offsetting flights?

How do airlines go about carbon offsetting flights?

Every airline does it differently. The most common way is by estimating the emissions from each flight, and dividing this by the amount of seats they have to get the total per person. This amount is then charged to the customer and the funds are distributed to a third-party company whose purpose is purely to offset carbon emissions through environmental projects.

Sometimes the airlines have their own environmental schemes. Qantas, for example, has a fuel conservation program that’s working towards a massive reduction in fuel emissions.

But some other airlines may have no such policies. The best way to check is to head to the airlines respective websites and check for a section on sustainability, environmental policies, or carbon offsets.

How do carbon offsets work?

The third parties used by many airlines have various ways of offsetting carbon omissions. The funds they receive are most often used for carbon reduction projects that will assist in either soaking up carbon in the atmosphere, or developing cleaner energy so that we emit less carbon in the future.

These projects can include financing renewable energy (wind and hydro power), conservation and forest protection, or installing energy-saving technologies in businesses and homes.

What's the deal with carbon offsetting flights?

Do carbon offsets actually neutralise emissions?

This is never going to be an easy question to answer as carbon offsets can’t be easily measured. For example, if the carbon offset funds have been used to finance clean energy projects, the payoffs may not be seen for another 10 years.

But this is still very valuable investment – if we don’t finance these projects now, then it might be another 20, 30, or 50 years until we get clean energy and all those extra years of carbon emissions will put the environment into pretty bad shape.

It’s fair to say that the carbon offsets are just an estimate of the cost to neutralise emissions, but that doesn’t mean they don’t make a difference. The point is not really about offsetting the exact amount of carbon emitted, but working towards a cleaner and more energy-efficient future.

How much does it cost?

There are calculators such as this one where you can enter your flight path and get an estimate of how much CO2 your seat on the flight will produce. You can then calculate the cost in terms of offsetting the CO2.

It’s not usually a large amount – most domestic flights in Australia only charge a few dollars per flight for carbon offsets. A long haul international flight might be up to $50, but in comparison to what you’ve paid for the flight it seems like almost nothing!

Can you carbon offset your flights when the airline doesn’t offer it?

Absolutely. The third-party companies that airlines use for carbon offsetting will often accept funds from individuals.

I won’t list them as there are loads of choices and it’s probably best to support a company that will benefit your home country, but the best way to find them is to do a web search for ‘carbon offsets’ and see what comes up.

What's the deal with carbon offsetting your flights?

Choice Magazine have put together this list of FAQs about carbon offsetting flights, and whether you can trust carbon offset companies.

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