6 November 2019 by David Warne
Wexas Commercial Director David Warne takes an in-depth look at one of today’s most pressing questions: How can we, as travellers, reduce our carbon footprint?
The impact of flight emissions
Global aviation is responsible for around 2% of all human-induced emissions, and while it is by no means the biggest producer of carbon dioxide - the fashion industry, for example, is responsible for 10% - it is one of the sectors where emissions are predicted to rise sharply as demand for global air travel increases. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) forecasts that on present trends passenger numbers could double by 2037 to 8.2 billion and some surveys estimate emissions from civil aviation could triple by 2050.
By way of comparison, aviation is actually only responsible for around 12% of total transport-related emissions, whilst marine shipping accounts for 14% and road transport a whopping 72%. However, flying is, comparatively, the most polluting way to travel when comparing different means of transport for the same journey.
For example, the Energy Saving Trust estimates that for a journey from London to Edinburgh, an average flight emits around 144kg of carbon per person compared to 120kg for a petrol car, 115kg for a diesel car and just 29kg for a train.
What is the aviation industry doing to limit the impact of carbon emissions?
Most airlines are investing heavily in more efficient and less-polluting aircraft as they are both cheaper to operate and emit less carbon. However, even these latest generation aircraft will still be powered by fossil fuels for the immediate future, as less-polluting technologies are still some way off.
Looking further ahead, biofuels are the likely to be the first cleaner fuel to become a reality in civil aviation. Indeed, a few airlines have already powered test flights using biofuels but these replacements for kerosene are far from being commercially viable on a large scale.
As far as other technology goes, we may be seeing an increasing trend towards electric propulsion on our roads but using battery power - or even hybrid power - for commercial flights is at best many years off and may even be technically impossible for larger, long-haul aircraft.
Elsewhere, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) – the UN body responsible for limiting the carbon footprint from international air travel – is introducing a scheme to limit the growth of emissions from 2020 onwards. This scheme - known as CORSIA (Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation) - essentially commits airlines to limiting their total emissions to 2020 baseline levels, so that any growth is carbon neutral. This can be achieved by introducing a combination of initiatives, including using cleaner biofuels and purchasing carbon credits. While this initiative has been welcomed in some quarters by aiming to make airlines more efficient if they wish to grow - the less they produce the less credits they have to buy - it remains controversial, not least as it does not attempt to reduce emissions below 2020 baseline levels.
As we are unlikely to see a step change in the technology that powers commercial aircraft any time soon – and the growth in demand for air travel isn’t likely to stop – the principal option available to make a positive impact in the short term is to compensate for emissions using a carbon offset scheme.
A number of airlines have been offering voluntary offset schemes for a while, some more seriously than others. Qantas, for example, has been encouraging travellers to offset their flights for some time by offering frequent flyer points for every dollar spent on offsetting through their 'Fly Carbon Neutral' scheme. However, even though Qantas is one of the most successful airlines at encouraging travellers to offset their flights only around 10% of their travellers actually do so.
In October 2019 British Airways announced it would offset the emissions from all UK domestic flights and would step up efforts to encourage travellers to offset their international flights.
But perhaps the most significant development is that easyJet announced on 19th November 2019 that it would offset every flight it operates.
However, there are currently very few examples of airlines offsetting at source, so for most flights it is down to individual travellers to choose to offset the impact of their own travels.
Carbon offset schemes
How does it work?
Carbon offset schemes work on the principle whereby you invest in a project that physically removes CO2 from the air somewhere in the world to compensate for – or ‘offset’ – your emissions. In the case of offsetting a flight, you essentially purchase carbon credits equivalent to the amount of CO2 that your seat on a flight is responsible for.
What about other types of travel?
Offset schemes aren’t just limited to compensating for flights; you can offset other modes of travel such as cruises and journeys by car. Indeed, most schemes even allow you to calculate and offset emissions created in almost every area of your daily lives, from heating your house to shopping for certain types of goods.
Where does my money go?
The money raised from offsetting is invested in projects that typically focus on renewable energy, reforestation and providing environmentally sustainable cooking stoves - all of which have a carbon-positive impact.
How much does it cost?
Most organisations that offer offset schemes provide an online calculator to help you work out your emissions and then allow you to make a payment towards one or more of their projects.
For short flights the cost to offset can be surprisingly low; for example, to offset the emissions for a flight from London to Nice can be as low as £1.82.
The cost to offset your emissions can vary a fair amount depending on the project being supported. This is why there are quite noticeable differences in the cost of offsetting your flights depending on which offset provider is being used.
For example, the cost to offset a one-way economy flight from London to New York can vary between £4.98 and £21.00 depending on which offset provider you use and which project you choose to support (see below).
Also, as business class seats take up more space than economy seats on a plane, they are responsible for a proportionately larger share of the emissions. The offset contribution is therefore higher; the same one-way flight to New York in business class would cost between £18.05 and £40.00 depending on the provider.
Which offsetting scheme should I choose?
There are numerous organisations offering carbon offsetting but the situation has been complicated by the fact that some projects have been discredited in recent years, leading some to claim that offsetting as a whole is flawed.
Indeed, some will argue that it is better not to create the problem than to attempt to mitigate the damage elsewhere but the fact remains that if you do choose to fly - or take a cruise or drive - it is far better to choose to offset than not to.
Fortunately, there are now globally recognised certification standards that enable us to make an informed choice about which providers we use and which projects we can support. Perhaps the two most widely recognised are the Gold Standard, developed in conjunction with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Verra, which initiated the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) programme. Both of these provide an internationally recognised rating scheme for projects that can be trusted.
We have chosen to focus on three providers, each of which offers an easy-to-use online emissions calculator and the opportunity to support projects approved by the either Gold Standard or Verra.
UK-based Climate Impact Partners offers offset calculators for flights and car journeys, as well as for personal energy use at home. It supports projects that protect rainforests in Sierra Leone, provide efficient cooking stoves in Kenya and develop renewable energy sources in China.
Another UK-based organisation, Carbon Footprint Ltd offers calculators for travel by air, car, motorbike, bus and rail. Projects that you can choose to contribute towards include planting trees in the UK, reforestation in Kenya and the Americas and community-based projects that provide clean drinking water and efficient cooking stoves around the world.
The Swiss organisation myclimate offers an online calculator for cruise emissions, as well as for flights and car journeys. Principal projects include helping small farmers in Nicaragua with reforestation, providing more efficient cooking stoves in Kenya and a range of offset projects in Switzerland.
As each provider offers different calculators and projects, we suggest choosing one that provides the offset calculator for your mode of travel – only one provides a cruise emissions calculator, for example – and then picking the project that you most wish to support from that provider. For offsetting flights you can choose from all three providers, so here we suggest you choose the project first, which will in turn determine your choice of provider.
What else can I do to reduce my carbon footprint?
If you want to go further and reduce your travel carbon footprint in the first place, a good starting point is travel by train rather than flying for journeys within the UK and to parts of the Europe. For inspiration, explore our collection of no-fly holidays.
While travelling by train isn’t completely carbon-free, the emissions are typically between a fifth and a tenth of those created by a flight for a comparable journey.
Furthermore, in this era which is dominated by the low-cost flying model, travelling by train can be comparatively more comfortable and enjoyable. Our guide to travelling in Europe by train is a good place to start.
The decision as to whether or not you choose to offset your travels is a purely personal one but as the cost to offset is a tiny proportion of the total cost of any holiday, we would certainly encourage all travellers to offset the emissions from their holidays.
Indeed, as regular travellers ourselves, all Wexas company trips are now offset, using the schemes mentioned above.