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Carbon Offsetting Explained

The problem until recently though is that this area has not been regulated.

Carbon offsetting is when an agreed amount is paid to a third party, by an individual or organisation, to “offset” the CO2 they or it have generated. The third party (a carbon offset company) then invest the money in a CO2 reducing scheme. The idea is that, in effect, you become carbon neutral.

Aside from George Bush, most people agree that greenhouse emissions pose a very real threat to the environment and once you look into some of the statistics out there, it makes for rather unsettling reading.

GreenSkies is a “worldwide information network of environmental organisations concerned with aviation’s environmental effects” and their website has some interesting facts and figures. For example, commercial jets produce over 700 million tons of CO2 every year and every time a person flies from Europe to the US, they generate between 1.5 and 2 tons of CO2. That figure sounds bad enough on its own, but when you bear in mind this is more or less the same amount that a European generates at home for heating and electricity in one year, then it feels rather uncomfortable.

The table below shows the amount of CO2 which is generated through various transport means per person, according to the website

Mode of travel From To Distance (km) Total CO2 (kg) CO2 per km (kg)
Air London Heathrow, UK Sydney, Australia 17100 3920 0.23
Air London Heathrow, UK Paris CDG, France 346 120 0.35
Car* London Heathrow, UK Paris CDG, France 446 100 0.22
Car** London, UK Edinburgh, UK 650 120 0.18
Train London Euston, UK Edinburgh, UK 650 39 0.06
Train London Waterloo, UK Paris Gare du Nord, France 500 30 0.06

*for a car with 2 litre engine or more
** for a car with 1.4 litre engine or less

Short-haul flights do not come out well in these comparisons since a vast amount of fuel is used for take-off regardless of whether you are flying from London to Australia or just across the Channel. Anyone with a “green” conscience should really think about getting the train where possible – and as far as getting to France is concerned – if you live in London, then this makes a lot of sense in terms of saving time.

Anyway, back to the planes: what’s being done about it in the airline industry?

Well, for example, European aircraft manufacturers are committed to producing new generations of engine and aircraft design and are aiming, by 2020, to make planes 50% more efficient than those from 2000.

There are also opportunities to further reduce CO2 output by integrating European air traffic control systems. The International Air Transport Association has suggested that a reduction of 12% of global aircraft emissions could be made if air traffic control processes were improved.

Of course the passenger can also do their bit by offsetting their own carbon footprint when they fly by paying money towards any number of schemes which then invest in companies or businesses which reduce carbon elsewhere. Plenty of European operators offer the opportunity to purchase a carbon offset when you buy your ticket (though it’s not always immediately apparent how) whilst Virgin Atlantic even give the passenger the chance to buy them in-flight. How passengers will feel about this potential “guilt-trip” remains to be seen – but at least they have a visible option to make themselves feel better.

Some of these schemes have come in for criticism however and in July last year, the Commons Environmental Audit Commission described one airline’s carbon offset scheme as “risible” as it sold only enough offsets to account for 0.01 per cent of its emissions.

There are various schemes available to do this: companies can purchase Certified Emission Reduction (CER) credits compliant with the Kyoto Protocol, become part of the European Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) or utilise a Voluntary Emissions Reduction scheme (VERs) as part of a corporate responsibility initiative which can then generate CERs to be purchased by governments or organisations to meet their targets.

The problem until recently though is that this area has not been regulated and so there are a lot of companies out there making claims about how much of a CO2 reduction they are making which are remaining largely unverified. Additionally, it can become rather murky as to what percentage of your payment is absorbed into the offsetter’s finances as well as the price being charged per tonne of CO2.

On the 19th February 2008, the British Secretary of State announced the framework for the Code of Best Practice for Carbon Offsetting. At the moment, the code is voluntary but gives offset providers the choice as to whether or not they wish to seek industry accreditation for their offsetting projects. At the moment, the code only covers CERs though plans to include VERs could be included in the future.

To calculate your own carbon emissions for you flights there are various “calculators” out there and the list below is just an example:

Act on CO2

The recent government proposal for regulation should help make this market less grey, but the key thing to investigate is which offsetting scheme the airline is using. Airlines tend to make this information public, so if you don’t like the look of the airline’s offsetting partner then, don’t make a payment to the airline and choose another company instead.

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