The Basics of Offsetting the Carbon Emissions From Your Flights

Jan 22, 2018

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Sometimes I feel guilty for flying. Although I try to be environmentally responsible in most areas of my life, I know flying produces substantial carbon pollution. And yet I still fly. A lot.

If you fly frequently, flying likely accounts for the majority of your personal carbon emissions. Unfortunately, many of us aren’t willing or able to significantly reduce our carbon emissions by flying less. This article, the first in a series of four on carbon emissions from travel, describes what we can do to make up for it.

In This Post

CO2 Basics

Airplanes emit various particles and gases, including carbon dioxide (CO2), into the atmosphere. In this article, we focus on CO2 because it makes up 65% of global greenhouse emissions.

CO2 is one of several greenhouse gases that occur in the atmosphere. When functioning properly, greenhouse gases regulate the earth’s temperature. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), human activities are responsible for almost all of the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere over the last 150 years. When excess greenhouse gas exists in the atmosphere, heat becomes trapped and the planet warms.

Estimating Your Carbon Footprint

The EPA website has a Carbon Footprint Calculator that estimates your household’s carbon footprint. Based on my previous apartment and lifestyle in Austin, TX, my estimated CO2 emissions were 5.341 tons annually. While detailed, unfortunately this calculator only considers driving a personal car for transportation and ignores other forms of travel like flights.

There are many calculators that can be used to estimate the carbon emissions related to flights. Many are simplistic and give a rough estimate by considering your mileage flown. Some go a step farther and consider your class of service, since larger seats take up more space and hence account for a greater amount of fuel used per passenger. The most detailed calculator we’ve seen also considers your plane type, since some plane types are significantly more fuel efficient than others. However, even this calculator is just an estimate — exact loads, cargo weights, taxi times, fuel expended and more would be necessary to make an exact calculation.

I track my flights using OpenFlights, so I know I flew 179,063 miles in 2017. Using a simple calculation based on my miles flown in 2017, my carbon footprint from flights in the year was 21.488 tons using BlueSkyModel’s air mile model. Note that other models may make different assumptions; as a result, they may compute different carbon footprints.

Reduce Your Emissions

The most effective way to reduce your CO2 emissions is to reduce your fossil fuel consumption. This could mean having a teleconference instead of traveling for a meeting. If you do travel, you can reduce your footprint by taking vacations closer to home, flying direct when possible, taking a bus, train or fuel-efficient vehicle instead of a short-haul flight, booking a flight on a more fuel efficient aircraft, flying economy class instead of business class or flying business class instead of a private jet.

Carbon Offsetting

Understandably, you may not be willing or able to reduce your travel significantly. And given the opportunity, most of us wouldn’t forgo a chance to fly in Etihad’s The Residence just because economy class or business class would have less of a carbon footprint. This is where carbon offsetting can come in.

Carbon offsetting involves spending money to make up for putting carbon into the atmosphere. The money you spend effectively offsets your carbon emissions by supporting projects that produce clean energy or reduce carbon emissions in other ways.

Critics of carbon offsetting say that spending to offset emissions merely allows polluters to feel better about their emissions and disincentives from working to reduce them. While this may be the case, if you’re going to fly, offsetting your carbon emissions is still better than doing nothing.

Certified Organizations

If you decide to offset your carbon emissions, you’ll quickly find many companies and organizations that are willing to take your money. You’ll also find that some airlines offer the chance to buy carbon offsets when booking a flight. Unfortunately, not all of these provide high-quality carbon offsets.

Some companies have entire teams that evaluate carbon offsetting projects to ensure that they are high quality. As individual consumers, we don’t have the resources, time or access to evaluate individual projects in detail. The next best option is to get suggestions from environmental organizations you trust or well-recognized organizations that list certified and verified carbon offsetting projects.

Three organizations that provide such listings are Gold Standard, Green-e and Climate Action Reserve. On each organization’s website, the projects are sortable by location and offset type(s). You can learn more about the projects and decide which offset project or projects looks the best to you. Gold Standard makes it easy to donate to a particular project on their website, while Green-e and Climate Action Reserve refer you to individual projects.

Bottom Line

Using the EPA calculator to calculate my household emissions (5.341 tons), OpenFlights to calculate my flight miles (179,063 miles) and BlueSkyModel’s air mile model to estimate my carbon emissions from these flight miles (21.488 tons), I found that my 2017 flights accounted for about 80% of my annual carbon emissions.

Different carbon offsetting projects charge different amounts for offsetting, but an energy efficiency project on the Gold Standard website charges $13 to offset each ton of CO2. At this rate, offsetting my 2017 flights costs about $279.

If you want to offset your carbon emissions, make sure to find a high quality project that’s certified and verified. If you currently give to a carbon offsetting project that you’re passionate about, let us know below.

Stay tuned for more about how to make your travel more environmentally friendly and specifics on carbon offsetting programs.

Featured image by leonard_c/Getty Images

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