Airline Offsets are not enough!

Air travel for recreational purposes is a large source of GHG emissions.  Air travelers can purchase offsets as part of the booking and paying for a specific flight. This way they can counter their share of the emissions generated during the trip.  The air line relies upon the analysis of a third party consultant to determine an appropriate payment for the offset.

Recently we purchased offsets from United Air Lines.  The offset page on United’s website had a photo of the leaf canopy of a tall tree .  The text  read:

Our Eco-Skies CarbonChoice program provides customers with the opportunity to reduce the carbon footprint associated with their air travel through the purchase of carbon offsets. . . . . Available through our partnership with Sustainable Travel International (STI), the carbon offsets allow participants to support projects designed to help reduce greenhouse gases and provide social and economic benefits to communities United serves.

 United, like many other airlines, offered offset projects that involved planting trees: a community based forest in Peru and a forest conservation project in California.  A third project, which clearly would reduce GHG emissions, was the Capricorn Ridge Wind project in Texas.

We decided that Texas, which leads the US in production of renewable energy through windpower, did not need the small offset we would be paying. The Peru Project seemed to provide financial assistance to protect a critical watershed, but was vague how this related to offsetting emissions.  So we chose the forest conservation project in California to preserve a redwood forest that “allows for the prevention of 77,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually.”

After we had completed the purchase we investigated the California project more carefully.  There is little doubt that it is a worthwhile venture, but – unlike the Texas  Project – lessening of GHG  emissions would be a long time coming.  As we previously have concluded  it is unclear how to evaluate the benefit of an offset directed to planting trees.

A new study, led by Professor Daniel Scott of Waterloo University, found that the most cost effective strategy for the tourism industry to meet the United Nations’ recommended targets of reducing carbon emissions, includes a combination of strategic energy saving and renewable energy initiatives within the industry and buying carbon offsets from other parts of the global economy where emission reductions can be done at less cost.

We have noted that purchasing offsets has declined significantly from the time of their first introduction, and there are no signs that this trend will be reversed. In effect, passenger offsets have not taken off and they should be scrapped!

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