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, it is one of the sectors where emissions are predicted to rise 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 newer, 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 partially powered flights using biofuels but they 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 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 aiming to offset emissions by allowing airlines to purchase carbon credits rather than burn less fossil fuels. While this is aimed at making airlines more efficient – the less they produce the less credits they have to buy if they wish to expand – it remains controversial as it does not tackle the root cause of increasing emissions.
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 – one of the options available to air travellers is to look at offsetting the emissions created as a result of their need or desire to fly.
Carbon offset schemes
How does it work?
Carbon offset schemes work on the principle whereby you invest in a project that helps reduce CO2 emissions 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 and most schemes even allow you to calculate and offset emissions created in almost every area of our daily lives, from heating a 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 for communities in developing countries.
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 based on the emissions created.
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 most widely recognised of these is the Gold Standard, which provides an internationally recognised rating scheme for projects.
We have chosen to focus on three providers, each of which offers the chance to support projects approved by the Gold Standard. Each provider also offers an easy-to-use online emissions calculator.
UK-based Climatecare 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 dictate 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.