Offsetting emissions

I’m flying quite a lot this year, so I used the (not particularly user-friendly)


flight calculator to give me some idea of my total emissions. Most people

fly less than this in a year, I’m sure, but then again I can think of very many

people who fly a lot more. In any case, here are my flights for the year, which

collectively account for more carbon emissions than the rest of my life combined:

Flight Tonnes of CO2
New York–Acapulco return 0.8
New York–Albuquerque 0.4
El Paso–New York 0.3
New York–St Louis return, six times 2.4
New York–London return 1.2
London–Berlin 0.1
Munich–London 0.1
New York–Los Angeles 0.4
Long Beach–San Francisco 0.1
San Francisco–New York 0.4
New York–Portland (Maine) return 0.2
New York–Washington return 0.2
New York–Tucson return 0.8
New York–Ushuaia return (via Santiago) 2.3
Total 9.7

These numbers are inprecise, of course: there’s no generally-accepted way for

calculating the carbon emissions one is responsible for when taking an airplane.

What kind of airplane do you base the model on? What percentage occupancy do

you assume? How much cargo do you model? What do you use for the CO2 equivalent

of other greenhouse gases emitted? And, most crucially, what multiplier do you

use for the extra harm caused by emissions at 35,000 feet?

In any case, the cost to offset 9.7 tonnes of CO2 emissions, according to the

Climate Care

calculator, is £72.75, which is $137.75 at today’s exchange rate.

A significant sum, but certainly an affordable one, so I’m happy to offset my

flight-related emissions for the year with one donation.

But the weird thing, to me, is that all of the websites I can find about carbon

offsets seem to be based in the UK or Canada.

People there – at least the environmentally-responsible ones – are

very likely to know about offsetting their emissions. In the US, however, when

I bring up the subject, I’m generally greeted with blank stares. Some high-profile

Americans offset, of course: this

article cites Al Gore and Dave Matthews. But the concept is still not generally

known about in this country.

What I would love to see would be the ability for flyers to offset their carbon

emissions when they buy their plane tickets, rather than having to proactively

go to some other website entirely. It shouldn’t be too hard for a progressive

airline like Virgin or JetBlue to add a little button on their ticket-sales

page, saying "offset your carbon emissions from this flight for an extra

$22" or whatever – many more people would do that, I’m sure, than

currently go to places like Climage Care. Of course, all donations would be


At the very least, if the airlines won’t do it, might not one of the big travel

booking sites give it a go? I’d probably switch from Orbitz to Travelocity,

say, if it had those kind of environmental credentials.

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13 Responses to Offsetting emissions

  1. Rhian Salmon says:

    I can’t believe you haven’t heard my (almost identical) rant on this matter.. maybe there are sibling similarities after all. It would be so easy for travel agents to add a voluntary green tax during the booking stage, while you’re buying, “would you like to pay an additional carbon offsetting tax of ߣ3 for your flight to Vienna” or, as you suggested, a box to tick during internet bookings. Even the flight companies themselves, say EasyJet or British Airways, wouldn’t lose by recognising this option during buying. I am a big fan of carbon offsetting but it still takes me months to get around to doing it after travelling.. when I remember.

    Also, while on the subject, you’ve got to be careful who you go to when offsetting your emissions. From personal research, I think Climate Care are pretty good as they invest in projects in non-Kyoto, generally developing, countries.. projects that by nature of their activitiy encourage alternative energies or prevent high levels of emissions by offering alternatives. Other sites just offer tree planting which (1) depends on the trees staying ther for atleast 30 years to absorb the CO2, (2) depends on the trees not being burned, or rotting, and being replaced if they are and (3), often just goes into funding tree planting initiatives that were previously supported by the State/government/etc.. This ties in with Climate Care only working in countries that didn’t sign the Kyoto protocol: so they aren’t helping the governments to fulfil their committments, thereby taking credit for it.

    There are howevere many environmental movements that discourage carbon offsetting as it leads to a misleading assuaging of guilt. It would, ofcourse, be better if none of us fly. Still, there are many people out there who won’t stop flying but might contribute to carbon offsetting. And even if they don’t tick the box, or say no to the opportunity, the fact that the option is there would at the very least increase public awareness of their individual impact on the climate. Surely every bit helps?

  2. Matt says:

    “It would, of course, be better if none of us fly.”

    Is that really true? Not all of us are in the Felix Salmon 2006 league of climate savagery through flight, but even at that level of emissions is it really not possible to offset?

    Presumably it comes down to exruciating and poorly understood details of climate change modelling, but by reductio ad absurdum, if I were to ‘offset’ my upcoming return LHR->JFK flight by replanting some number of hectares of Brazilian soya fields with whatever works best (I have no idea what that might be by the way, it’s just an example), would I never be able to offset my emissions, no matter how much soya plantation I bought?

  3. Rhian says:

    That’s a good question and much debated. I think the worry is that if people offset, then they’ll not be encouraged to think about longer term solutions to the climate problem.

    This isn’t really a quick-fix answer as we are still pumping large amounts of CO2 into the atmopshere that is making the planet warm up very quickly. And planting trees, or whatever you choose to do to counteract that production, will never get rid of that CO2 as quickly as we are putting it into the system. Never. At best you’re looking at decades trying to compensate for a 5 hour flight. And you’ve got to hope that those decades are really put to use, i.e. the forest management doesn’t get handed to someone with other motives in 5 years time…

    So the balance is massively shifted on a time scale and really, what we need to be doing is dramatically slowing down our emissions now, rather than compensating for them in the future, in order to give the planet a chance to achieve some kind of new equilibrium.

    That said, I’ll be making a similar flight later this week. Bah.

  4. Matthew says:

    British Airways sort of do this, they certainly offer the link when you buy the ticket though it goes to a different site

    I don’t think I really buy the science though. For one it’s too easy. UK emissions last year were about 160m tonnes of carbon, which I think is something like 500m tonnes of CO2. To offset this entirely would cost ߣ3.5bn with that offset price, not a tiny sum but hardly prohibitive (UK GDP is well over ߣ1000bn).

    Surely these offsets are only this cheap because few people buy them?

  5. Felix says:

    I went to to see how it worked, decided to book a ticket from New York to London return. First it asked me to choose an outbound flight, then a return flight. It then quoted that flight, and offered me more expensive options: upgrades at $308 per leg, or increased flexibility for $89+.

    On the next page, it asked for more information about me. And on the next page it asked for payment for the full price, asking for credit card details. At no point did I ever get the option to offset my emissions for an extra charge.

    I tried again, this time going via the climate change page at — and this time I tried to book from London to New York, rather than the other way around. Again I picked my outbound and return journeys, but this time on the next page I was offered hotels, cars, sightseeing, and transfers. I entered my details, declined travel insurance, and once again got taken to a credit-card payment page for the total price, without an option to offset my emissions.

    So BA might be talking a good press release, but I don’t think reality is matching up.

  6. Felix says:

    So OK, now I’ve read the comment again, and apparently there may or may not be a link AFTER I’ve paid for my ticket which takes me to a completely different site where I need to enter my origin and destination all over again, not to mention my credit card details etc. This is NOT what I was talking about.

    And why do you think that you couldn’t offset a year’s worth of CO2 emissions with ߣ3.5bn? Remember that’s an annual cost, and ߣ3.5bn — which is $6.6 billion — buys a lot of land or trees or cleaner factories or whatever.

  7. Matthew says:

    Oh I’m sure BA are talking themselves up, and take the point about the ease of use, though at least this way (assuming it does show up once you’ve purchased the ticket) you can’t forget to do it (you can still find it too time consuming etc).

    On the cash thing – the idea behind Kyoto, which has been criticised by many countries as unrealistic, was to reduce C02 emissions by 5% over 1990 level by 2010. Here we’re saying all you need is ߣ3.5bn (0.25% of GDP) a year and you can reduce (net) levels to zero. You could achieve the 5% Kyoto reduction with just ߣ175m a year – ߣ3.50 per adult – or a lot less than the UK’s airline tax raises (nearer ߣ1bn).

    Or am I completely missing the point?

  8. Stefan says:

    Somebody in the Guardian today brought up the eminently reasonable point (IMO) that the offsetting of your carbon emissions with a payment is exactly analogous to the purchasing of indulgences by sinners in Catholic Europe a few centuries ago, with the identical aim of offseting guilty consciences rather than acgtual emissions.

    The solution to your flying “problem” is to not fly, rather than pay somebody to not fly on your behalf — for the obvious reason that this person wou;dn’t have been flying abyways.

    Another way of putting this: The amount of sinning in Catholic Europe did not diminish with the invention of indulgences.

  9. Felix says:

    It’s a little bit more sophisticated than that, Stefan — it works in theory at least. The idea is that polluters (like me, with all my flights) pay money in penance for our pollution. That money, in turn, can then be spent to decrease carbon emissions elsewhere — for instance, it can be used to pay for a system to clean up a power plant’s emissions which would otherwise not be economically feasible. See eg for a brief overview.

  10. geoff says:

    i am all in favor of environmental reform and certainly don’t need convincing that the current environmental situation is one that will have us all eating soylent green by the year 2050…

    but carbon credits on an individual level to help plant trees or purchase more efficient stoves for third world communities seems so ridiculous that it borders on offensive. no- actually, it is offensive.

    this sort of initiative strikes me as being nothing but purely symbolic. empty symbolism at that, since the sort of people who would be contributing to the rebuilding of ugandan rainforests aren’t the people who need convincing that the environment actually needs serious help.

    couldn’t some concerned group with the sort of time to dedicate to such things, take the money being put towards zero carbon flying and hire a lobbying group that would push for higher fuel efficiency in cars? what do u.s. cars account for in the global carbon total? 2%? 4%? 6%? is the contribution of cooking equipment from a village of dirt farmers even measurable? force the hand of the car industry and it then falls on the much deeper pockets of their marketing depts. to sell the idea to the general population- who may or may not otherwise care about environmental issues.

    if one desires a more touchyfeely ecological approach what about buying existing rainforest? what does a logging company pay for an acre of rainforest? what would it cost to talk some jungle ridden government into a 99year land lease? it surely has to be cheaper and have greater immediate effects on climate than replanting rainforest somewhere it has already been razed- and waiting for it to grow back in. i’m just guessing.

    please feel free to give me the real facts if i am all wrong about the environmental impact of inefficient lightbulbs in kazakh schools.

  11. Matthew says:

    I’ve been thinking about the costs/benefits and I think this is my point. There are three main ways in which carbon offsets are meant to work – planting trees (which I’ll ignore as the science is very dodgy), efficiency – replacing high emissions energy (or industry) with low emissions, or using non-emitting sources.

    The cost ($14 a tonne, as above) can be seen in two ways – either a direct cost of removing 1 tonne of CO2 either through greater efficiency or non-emitting sources, or it can be seen (through the trading programme) as a payment that can be made to convince someone with high emissions to give up one tonne of theirs – that is they prefer the payment to the emissions.

    The reason a lot of people don’t like the idea of offsets is that essentially rich people with large emissions per person are paying poor people with far less emissions to emit less so they can emit more.

    I’m not sure about the desirability or not of that – the idea is that what matters is “economic efficiency” per tonne of emission, and as that’s usually higher in developed countries, we get to keep ours. However it would be politically difficult if the US/EU were responsible for an every rising proportion of emissions.

    But that’s not really my point. What I’m saying is there’s only so far you can do this. The developed world can’t entirely offset its emissions by reducing them in the developing world, as the numbers don’t allow it – there just aren’t enough easily removed emissions(let alone the manpower etc) to make it possible. In fact I’d have thought once you get past a few simple concepts -replace clapped-out coal power stations with gas ones, make better use of renewables, the cost of removing another tonne of carbon dioxide will start to rise quite rapidly. As carbon offsets are not that popular at the moment I’d have thought the price was artificially low, particularly given the EU’s allocation policy is generous (and this is also why I don’t think they’ll necessarily be a good investment despite my concerns about the price)

  12. Roger says:

    What surprises me about this blog is how cheap it is to buy offsets, in a world where the USA (in particular) claims not to be able to afford action to reduce global warming. [Felix: can you check out the arithmetic, in your Report Report Report manner?] At these rates (1) it would be politically quite realistic to impose a carbon tax on flights (though I note the UK government hahs just ruled this out, purportedly because of the adverse effect on the poor who take cheap flights); and (2) the effect on demand for flights would, I guess, be minimal.

  13. Chris says:

    Isn’t the airline ultimately responsible for their own externalities? They are providing a service, and in the performance of that service they do some bad things to the atmosphere that they don’t pay for. They should offset their own carbon. Sure this cost would be passed to the consumer, but at least you could fly guilt free and hassle free too.

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