Can you really cancel out the impact of flying with carbon offsetting?

By now, most of us know that we should be trying to fly less. Travelling by aeroplane accounts for 2% of total global greenhouse gas emissions, and those 39.4 million annual flights pump out toxic nitrogen oxide, cancer-causing exhaust particulates and carbon dioxide; the latter of which absorbs heat and re-emits it back to earth.

In 2019, the world really woke up to the impact of flying. Greta Thunberg travelled to a UN climate conference in New York in a zero-emissions yacht, rather than flying. Meanwhile, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex were bitched at for flying to Sir Elton John’s villa in Nice in a private jet; their swanky trip would have emitted about four times as much CO2 per person compared an equivalent economy seat.

But for most people – with beloved friends and family often spread across the globe – completely quitting on flying is unlikely to be an option.

So what can we do to reduce the impact of our aviation travel?

Is ‘Carbon Offsetting’ the answer?

Carbon offset schemes involve contributing towards environmental projects that reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, in order to “offset” the carbon emitted by an activity or purchase (e.g. you can calculate the carbon produced by a flight, by what you eat, the clothes you wear, the modes of transport you take, etc).

Whilst this sounds like a great idea, it’s worrying but reasonable to assume that the idea that emissions can be cancelled out by simply planting new trees will soon be used to validate yet more flying, rather than less. It’s also important to note that many environmental campaigners view Carbon Offsetting rather dimly. As George Monbiot puts it, it’s the idea that you can “buy yourself a clean conscience by paying someone else to undo the harm you are causing.” 

Once you scratch the surface, it’s clear that Carbon Offsetting really isn’t the silver bullet it’s sometimes made out to be. But for the times when a flight is an absolute necessity (or if like me, really, really want to go on a proper, far-flung honeymoon), it can at least play a part in reducing your eco-guilt, providing you seek out to a reputable / trustworthy scheme.

Schemes range from tree planting initiatives to solar and wind projects, to biomass projects, to helping communities in ecologically sensitive areas to make a sustainable income without damaging the habitats around them. As a general rule of thumb, it is better to support wind or solar than any form of biomass project (while biomass can do good, it can also do enormous harm if not executed well).

Koh Phangan, ThailandCardiff’s own Carbon Offset program

Regrow Borneo is a project from Cardiff University that gives people the opportunity to balance carbon emissions by donating to support a tree-planting project in the Lower Kinabatangan rainforest in Sabah, Borneo.

The expansion of palm oil plantations in the Lower Kinabatangan has led to a loss of three quarters of rainforest since the early 1970s. To help reverse this, Regrow Borneo will invest money into local community tree planting initiatives, managed by the Danau Girang Field Centre. The project aims to:

  • balance carbon created during air travel
  • improve biodiversity and support conservation of local ecologies in Lower Kinabatangan
  • sustain local livelihoods and culture in Lower Kinabatangan
  • improve scientific understanding of the environmental, economic, social and cultural impacts of tropical reforestation
  • provide opportunities for institutions and individuals to mitigate their own unavoidable carbon emissions through support for tree-planting

It costs just £2 to grow, plant and maintain a tree in Lower Kinabatangan for three years, and to get an idea of how much to donate based on your specific flight, Regrow Borneo have also created this recommended donation map. You can either donate recommended amounts based on a distance flown, or donate whatever you can afford.

Once you’ve calculated / decided on an amount, you can donate at https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/regrowborneo.

A flyer’s guilt: the struggle is real

Coincidentally, the last big, long-haul trip I took (back in 2016) was to Borneo. It was a chance for me and two friends to visit a virgin rainforest, see wild and critically endangered proboscis monkeys, and come face to face with orphaned orangutans in an award-winning rehabilitation centre. It was an amazing, humbling trip for us, especially as both girls work in conservation day-to-day (one is now based in Australia, and the other is head of fundraising at the National History Museum in London).

That trip means that I have seen the habitats and animals that will benefit from this reforesting scheme first-hand, but I also had the benefit of attending the launch of Regrow Borneo at Cardiff University, and meeting some of the team who run the project. As a rule of thumb, they have committed to making their offsetting scheme as ethical, transparent and evidence based as possible. They even have celeb backing, with early support (and a donation) coming from Dame Judi Dench.

girl on jungle canopy walk

Since my trip to Borneo back in 2016, a mounting sense of guilt about the impact of flying has meant that I’ve avoided long-haul travel in favour of trips taken closer to home. But in January, I’m taking my belated two-week honeymoon – to Bali – which will involve covering 7966 miles, and two flights each way.

Needless to say, I’m feeling pretty guilty about it, so after a bit of research, I decided to make a few sustainable travel resolutions to see me through 2020 and beyond.

How I plan to limit my travel carbon footprint in 2020

  • Donating to Regrow Borneo – To offset the impact of my Bali honeymoon. Based on their donation map, it will cost £80 – 90 to offset the carbon from my return trip.
  • Following Chris Packham’s lead – By ditching all UK domestic flights in favour of travel by coach and train. Find out more.
  • Flying economy – LOL, as if the alternative was an option for me! But seriously, the energy and fuel used by a plane is so large, the more people on it, the better.
  • Packing lighter –  If everyone aimed to packed (0.9kg) less than normal, it would save as much carbon as removing over 10,000 cars from the road every year.
  • Continuing to limit the number of flights I take – I want to continue to look closer to home when planning the majority of my holiday time; there’s so much to see!

If you’re interested in offsetting the carbon for your 2020 trips, Gold Standard-approved wind or solar energy projects can be found on on the Gold Standard website and you can buy Gold Standard CERs directly through the UN’s platform.

For more info on ‘Regrow Borneo’ – the new Carbon Offsetting scheme from Cardiff University, visit: https://www.cardiff.ac.uk/sustainable-places/research/projects/regrow-borneo 

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1 Comment

  1. Richard Nosworthy
    January 3, 2020 / 5:08 pm

    Also there’s a lot of scope to cut emissions by choosing holidays which don’t need flights. A great resource is Seat61.com. We’ve holidayed in many parts of France and the Netherlands by train or ferry. The direct Eurostar from London to southern France is brilliant. We once cut emissions by flying to Stockholm but getting the train back to Cardiff.

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