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

eco friendly traveller

By now, most of us know that we should be flying 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 heavily criticised 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 an annual holiday is a key highlight – and 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 to assume that emissions can be cancelled out by simply planting new trees – and the fear is, it 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 the only way to go, it can at least play a part in reducing your eco-guilt, providing you seek out 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.

Koh Phangan, Thailand

Cardiff’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 a recommended donation map. You can either donate recommended amounts based on a distance flown, or donate whatever you can afford.

For more info on ‘Regrow Borneo’ visit: https://www.cardiff.ac.uk/sustainable-places/research/projects/regrow-borneo.

A flyer’s guilt: the struggle is real

Coincidentally, one of the few truly long-haul trips I’ve taken was to Borneo. It was a 30th birthday celebration, and a chance for us 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 Regrow Borneo’s reforesting scheme. Back home, I also had the benefit of attending the launch of Regrow Borneo in Cardiff, and meeting some of the team who run the project to talk to them about the impacts first-hand. But ever since this trip, a mounting sense of guilt about the impact of flying has meant that I’ve avoided long-haul travel in favour of land-based trips taken closer to home.

I know I will at some point, fly again – and my gut feeling is that people who could be turned on to making more sustainable choices can be quickly turned off if certain things – like the annual summer holiday – are taken completely off the table.

Giving Up Flying vs Going Vegan

Before you tease that eco-conscious friend for continuing to eat meat or take flights, it’s worth taking a closer look at the facts. As food obsessed as I am, I wondered which would actually be better in terms of cutting down on personal carbon emissions? Going vegan, or giving up flights?

It’s estimated that flying from London to Athens generates around 353kg to 405kg of CO2 per passenger. But according to the BBC carbon footprint calculator, eating a 75g serving of beef one to two times a week for a year would generate 604kg of CO2 emissions (so more than taking that flight, by around a third).

It stands to reason then, that if you’ve quit flying but you’re still eating lots of meat, you’re probably not having a positive impact. And vice versa – if you’re vegan but flying regularly, the carbon-saving impact you’ll be making will be small, if any.

Conscious choices: how I plan to limit my own travel carbon footprint

Much like my attitude to food, I have decided that making conscious choices about travel is what’s most important to me. With this in mind, these are the steps that I’m taking to limit my own travel carbon footprint:

  • Donating to a gold standard offset scheme – to mitigate the impact of any future flights. 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.
  • Ditching all UK domestic flights – in favour of on-land travel by coach and train. Find out more.
  • Lobbying – for cleaner, cheaper and more efficient public transport options in the UK. People won’t take the train if it costs twice as much as a plane and we have to address this!
  • Flying economy – as if the alternative was an option for me, ha. But seriously, the energy and fuel used by a plane is so large, the more people on it, the better.
  • Packing lighter –  Packing 0.9kg less saves as much carbon as removing over 10,000 cars from the road, every year. I aim to be at least 25% under my luggage allowance for each flight.
  • 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, hit me up with your recommendations!
  • Not buying into ‘holiday fashion’ – The fashion industry accounts for about 8-10% of global carbon emissions, and nearly 20% of wastewater. Whilst the environmental impact of flying is now well known, fashion uses more energy than both aviation and shipping combined. You don’t need a new holiday wardrobe – wear what you already have.

Want to read more? It’s worth checking out this Curiously Conscious post on how to holiday more sustainably – without the flight shaming: www.curiouslyconscious.com/2020/08/how-to-holiday-sustainably-uk.html. 

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2 Comments

  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.

    • HungryCityHippy
      Author
      February 2, 2020 / 10:48 am

      Absolutely – we loved our trip to Bruges a few years ago via the Eurostar. It’s actually a lot less stressful than flying!

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