Flying Blind: What impact do airline offsets actually have?

Traditionally one of the most difficult climate questions, airline industries began 2020 with big announcements on how they plan to account for their massive carbon footprint. 

There are currently few viable alternatives to long-distance travel, and the technology to make plane fuel less polluting is simply not ready to be used at scale. At the same time, emissions from air travel are ever-growing. Since 2013, carbon emissions from the aviation industry have increased by 26%, a number that is only expected to rise. By 2050, it is possible that flight emissions will account for more than a fourth of the entire carbon budget that has been alloted to limit global temperature increases above 1.5 degrees Celsius

Yet recent changes in expectations and consumer demand have forced airline companies to consider alternatives and take action on accounting for their climate burden. Individuals are beginning to consider how their daily actions affect their personal carbon emissions, and are making changes to their lifestyles to reduce them. In response, every sector of the economy is feeling the effects of these shifting consumer preferences, and industries are beginning to incorporate environmental considerations into their operations. 

Consumer-driven emissions policies

The rise of the flight-shaming movement — inspired by influential individuals such as Greta Thunberg when she sailed across the Atlantic to avoid flying — is forcing citizens to pay more attention to their air travel. A recent poll showed that the majority of citizens in the U.S., China, and the European Union are all planning on flying less this year in order to reduce their carbon footprint. 

This change in citizen values has been recognized by the airline industry. Sophia Mendelsohn, head of sustainability and environmental social governance at JetBlue, said in a statement, “What we really have seen is a change in customer expectations around how an airline manages its pollution associated with climate change, as well as expectation shifts with the crew members who work for the airline, the communities we serve in and with our shareholders, our owners, whose money we are the stewards of.”

JetBlue is one of many airlines pledging to make their domestic operations carbon neutral in 2020. This follows commitments by easyJet to achieve net zero emissions on all flights, and British Airways to reach carbon neutrality on domestic flights. To achieve these goals, airline companies plan to offset the emissions produced during flights. 

Some background on flight offsetting

Flight offsetting is not a new concept. The idea first surfaced in 1997 with the formation of the Kyoto Protocol, when countries formed greenhouse gas emission reduction targets that were supposedly binding. For countries to meet these targets, the protocol included carbon offsetting — a process that allows countries to purchase activities that compensate for emissions. These offset projects were provided for through Kyoto’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).

Offsets can manifest in many different forms and projects, with the goal to either remove carbon from the atmosphere, or circumvent emitting it in the first place. These can be anything from investing in renewable energy projects, planting trees and avoiding deforestation, or supplying energy efficient light bulbs for households. 

Flight offsetting became mainstream in 2002, when the company Responsible Travel began selling offsets to customers on flights. However, in 2009 it halted this program when its CEO began seeing underlying issues with the offsetting scheme. The Responsible Travel website now states that “carbon offsets sum up all that is wrong with our approach to tourism and the climate crisis,” a statement in line with some public skepticism and distrust of offset programs as legitimate climate solutions. 

Despite this public reprimand of offsets in 2009, airlines continued offering flight offsetting to their customers. That same year, the International Air Transport Association launched an offsetting program, joined by 30 member airlines, that standardizes the offsetting process and ensures participating companies are offering credible options.  

The first supranational regime that included airline offsets was established when flight emissions were included in the European Union’s Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) — a cap-and-invest program that sets a limit on all emissions deriving from EU countries which began in 2005. In 2012, domestic flight emissions were included in the system, and now, all flights inside these countries are regulated and count towards the emission allowances each country receives. Both European and non-European companies that operate within EU territory must participate. 

The future of international offsetting: CORSIA 

Including airline emissions in the EU ETS paved the way for future supranational flight regulation. In the 2015 Paris Agreement, international aviation was not included within country emission reduction goals, despite being incorporated in many drafts of the text, as the decision whether or not to include it became very contentious. Instead, in 2016, the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) was adopted by the United Nations. 

CORSIA establishes a global market to offset international flights, which began in January this year when all countries that agreed to be a part of the program started to monitor their emissions. At the start of 2021, international aviation emissions will not be allowed to exceed 2020 emission levels. Airlines will be required to purchase offsets in a ratio proportionate to their total carbon emissions, rather than considering the growth of their own organization. This means that the amount of offsets purchased by individual airlines will be dependent on entire global aviation emissions. Offsets are regulated through Emissions Unit Criteria (EUC), and the Technical Advisory Body (TAB) then determines which projects meet the criteria. 

The agreement extends until 2035, becoming mandatory in 2027. If CORSIA is not extended past this final phase, the program is expected to cover only 6% of entire projected international carbon emissions between 2015 and 2050. This 6% includes only airlines that have already agreed to join the program and has the potential to greatly increase, especially if CORSIA continues past 2035, which it most likely will. However, it does display that the agreement should be strengthened and expanded if it is to make a more significant impact on global emissions. 

There are, however, issues in ensuring these reductions are actually met. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which oversees CORSIA, has been criticized for its lack of transparency. The majority of CORSIA documents are inaccessible, a deviation from usual UN procedure. The fact that most of the negotiations were conducted by the airline industry alone, without major influence from other groups or civil society, contributed to this transparency issue as well. 

Offsetting is no “silver bullet” solution 

International offsetting schemes are certainly better than doing nothing and have the potential to result in meaningful emissions reductions. However, there are serious issues, not only with the structure of CORSIA, but with offsetting itself as a solution for carbon emissions. 

Historically, there have been a lot of problems with offsets. Many critics argue that offsets are a way for individuals to justify their carbon emissions without actually taking any action to change their lifestyles. When people are not correctly educated, offsets can perpetuate the idea that current emission patterns are sustainable, when in fact, they are not. 

Another big issue is that offsets often do not do what they promise. In 2017, the European Commission published a study which demonstrated that 85% of offsetts under Kyoto’s CDM did not reduce the emissions they were intended to

CDM projects are currently one of the standards included in the EUC, but it is unlikely that they will actually be accepted by the TAB. During negotiations, most countries have noted that CDM credits should not be included in any new international markets considering their ineffectiveness, despite some pushback from countries such as Brazil and Australia who currently have lots of CDM projects in progress. While it is unlikely that CDM credits will be included, it will still be necessary for CORSIA to set regulations far more strict than those of the CDM to ensure the program is successful. 

Why were CDM offsets so ineffective? 

Reasons as to why offsets can be ineffective vary greatly. One is the issue of permanence. If you purchase offsets that plant a tree, for example, there is no guarantee that that tree will live the amount of time required to offset the emissions you produced. In addition, trees take years to grow before they begin to absorb carbon dioxide, while flights are increasing at a rapid pace. In that case, some offsets may not be quick enough to make meaningful impacts. 

Ensuring the legitimacy of offsets is another complication. Often, individuals or corporations sell offsets for projects that they would’ve completed anyway — such as what occurred with a landfill offset scheme in Australia. There are additional issues in measuring offsets, especially when relating to forestry projects, which are especially popular. It is extremely difficult to accurately predict how much carbon a forest will actually absorb, especially when it is impossible to tell how long a particular tree will survive. 

Offsets can also have negative effects for indigenous communities. Forest preservation schemes often fail to include the perspective of indiginous communities when they are structured, and limitations set on hunting, logging, or land use can harm traditional ways of life. This is a critical point that needs to be addressed if offsetting is to be part of the equitable and effective climate solutions we need.

To ensure that CORSIA is effective, it will be very important that the guidelines set by ICAO for companies to purchase offsets are followed and monitored very closely. Luckily, there is now hope that these offsets will be well-regulated. 

On January 30th, it was announced that the International Air Transport Association (IATA) will develop the Aviation Carbon Exchange (ACE), a streamlined marketplace for airlines to buy and sell emissions credits under CORSIA. IATA Director Michael Gill stated that “ACE will ensure that carbon offsets are competitively priced, with the goal of lowering compliance costs and increasing confidence by ensuring that only high-quality, verified offsetting credits are available.”

So, are the new airline offsetting schemes actually impactful? 

The answer is a very cautious yes, although it is evident that these offsetting programs cannot be stand alone solutions. Without ensuring that airlines are taking measures to reduce emissions outside of offsetting, the aviation industry will not be prompted to change their unsustainable rate of emissions. 

While CORSIA only addresses offsets, there is hope that airline companies are taking these shortcomings into account. JetBlue’s sustainability plan recognizes that offsets cannot be the only solution to airline emissions, and takes other measures to reduce them as well, including the purchase of sustainable aviation fuel produced from biological materials from corporation Neste. JetBlue is also investing in NextGEN technologies, which constantly updates current lags in communications that assist in landing and take-off expediency, and is looking into increasing efficiency in flight routes, both of which would reduce fuel emissions. 

easyJet has also committed to investing in research to reduce aircraft weight and increase electric power, ensuring direct flights and using only one engine while planes are taxiing. They also reduced the amount of plastic used on flights by introducing non-plastic alternatives and incentivizing customers to bring reusable cups. British Airways has taken many of the same measures. 

Certainly, airlines purchasing carbon offsets cannot be the only solution for reducing the immense amount of emissions they are responsible for. But, there are very few alternatives to long-distance travel, and for the first time, customers can now actually make a difference in their environmental impact when they choose to fly by purchasing tickets with airlines that are taking steps to reduce emissions. While offsetting is far from perfect, it is better than doing nothing to address the vast amount of carbon emitted by the airline industry — as long as the offsets purchased are closely regulated and effective, and airlines are also taking other measures to reduce emissions.

Featured Image: Amanda Griffiths, Climate XChange. Airplane photo by Nick Morales on Unsplash.