Carbon credits or carbon complacency? Offsetting can improve climate awareness image and attract the eco-anxious, but more needs to be done

27 January, 2020

Carbon offsetting in aviation currently is one of the major mechanisms companies implement to offer a 'carbon neutral' product and image. Offset programmes allow passengers to make purchases that support sustainability projects through carbon credits, such as reforestation programmes, upgrades to environmentally inefficient infrastructure in developing countries and R&D in renewable technology, in order to try to counterbalance the cost of their flights.

ICAO's CORSIA mechanism, to be introduced through the 2020s, will look to create a market approach to retaining carbon neutral operations from 2020 onwards through offsets and investment in sustainable biofuel products.

However, airlines such as easyJet, Air France, British Airways and JetBlue Airways are becoming aware that in order to become 'carbon neutral' from a brand perspective, they have to do the hard work themselves, and are now committing to their own versions of offsetting on behalf of their passengers outside of CORSIA.

The European Investment Bank estimates in a recent climate change survey con EU travel and consumer habits that around one in eight Europeans voluntarily offset their flights on a consistent basis, and more are "planning to do so" more frequently. As this figure slowly increases, airlines may start to reap the intrinsic rewards of being a provider of carbon offsets, rather than stipulating it as an added cost that passengers must pay.

Carbon offsetting is not the silver bullet to creating a sustainable society, and they themselves have their own image problem. Speaking at the CAPA New Zealand Aviation & Corporate Travel Summit in 2019, Air New Zealand chief revenue officer Cam Wallace pointed out there is a "massive gap" between the people who talk about offsetting carbon emissions and those who actually offset. He compared it to buying a car, saying though you want everything, "at some stage you've got to pay for it".

This is the underlying issue with every aspect of the consumer world: when purchasing a product requiring or burning CO2, most instinctively know that there is an underlying cost in terms of carbon emissions. Most, however, are extremely reluctant to pay this cost voluntarily for various reasons which can be broken down into two groups: Those who think it's too much or those who think it's not enough to make a difference.

Cheaper offset options are usually long-term investments, particularly reforestation programmes that require many years for forests to fully develop to be able to absorb enough CO2. They are hard to track and hard to quantify in terms of how they reduce carbon, and are usually international projects rather than local/national initiatives, which can be viewed negatively by those who would prefer to not see their investment sent overseas.

So, while they are important in creating a climate conscience, carbon offsets have many disadvantages. Further, there is a risk that they will create complacency among businesses and consumers alike and redirect attention away from the high tech, high cost, high reward initiatives that really need to be pursued to achieve truly sustainable travel.

Businesses and individuals need to be aware that much more drastic measures need to be implemented much more quickly to reverse global warming. Naturally this goes for all industries, not just aviation. Seeing as aviation accounted for 13.9% of total greenhouse gas emissions emitted in the European transport sector, as of 2017, while road transport accounted for 71.7%, it's pretty clear which sector needs more work to be done to becoming more sustainable.

The Blue Swan Daily reported back in 2019 that easyJet will face a GBP25 million annual bill for its emission offset sustainability strategy, but that taking the lead in responding to growing flight shame movement may be worth even more.

As the industry still works to find a collaborative solution, easyJet says its carbon offsetting will remain "only an interim measure" while new technologies are developed. It says it will "continue to support innovative technology, including the development of hybrid and electric planes, working with others across the industry to reinvent and de-carbonise aviation over the long-term".

Momentum for environmental awareness and concern about air travel's impact on the environment will only continue to grow in the 2020s and beyond, and it is savvy airlines like easyJet that have jumped onto the band wagon to secure the growing share of eco-anxious passengers first.

Unfortunately, spending an extra tenner to have the peace of mind that your flight, car trip, cruise or home heating is carbon neutral simply isn't going to cut it!