Should I be offsetting my flight emissions?

This is admittedly something we have had to think less about this year, let’s hope things are better next year. Meanwhile offsetting flight emissions remains confusing, inexact, and somewhat implausible – am I really compensating the emissions from my flight by sending money to a website?

Take a specific example: suppose you were lucky enough to get to Crete this summer and googled “offset my flight”. Two calculators that come up offer the following results: 5,400 km flight 0.948t CO2 generated, offset for CHF 26 (£21.80) = £23.00 per tonne

“Support the reforestation project in Nicaragua, the second-poorest country in the western hemisphere. Small-scale farming families are reforesting unused sections of their land with native species. The programme combines practical nature conservation with the creation of new income sources for local families.” 3,333 miles 0.86t CO2 generated, offset for £12.31 = £14.31 per tonne

CommuniTree, Nicaragua – “Award winning programme for tropical reforestation where people can connect with individual farmers planting native trees at scale.”

Its slightly surprising that both offer a Nicaraguan project (a popular alternative is Kenyan cookstoves), but more surprising are the very different prices. It doesn’t inspire confidence. They can’t both be right and there is a lack of detail on what actually happens to the money. There are no unified industry standards and generally low transparency about actual projects.

Nevertheless, even with very low uptake – less than 2% of UK flights are offset, and only 1% of Lufthansa’s passengers use its offset app – voluntary offsetting is big business: Forest Trends estimates the global market is now worth $500m.

Planting trees is of course an important way of locking up carbon and there has been much debate recently, not least in last year’s UK election campaign, about how many to plant to reduce our national carbon footprint. As individuals we can only mitigate our carbon emissions by not doing something, or by offsetting. And while we might agree there is too much flying, that we should travel more by train, and do business by zoom, nobody expects or wants to see flying cease altogether.

So there is nothing wrong with promoting tree planting for offsetting per se; we just need to improve the carbon science. Standards and comprehensible metrics are being developed. In the UK, the Woodland Carbon Code, part of the Forestry Commission, has built a verifiable calculator: in round figures four trees planted as seedlings will lock up one tonne of carbon over 30 years of growth – depending of course on the species of tree, survival rates, the management regime and so on. Costs in the UK are much higher than in Nicaragua, but oversight will probably be better. The trees need to be there in 30 years and beyond so stewardship is important.

We will be looking at ways online offset calculators can be improved, and the wider issues of emissions other than just from flying. We are assessing projects in the UK and internationally in which we will be investing, and will provide examples – and offerings – of the ones we like.

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