We will never call a flight carbon neutral – until flights really are carbon neutral

Carbon neutral flight – is it possible? Most industries are striving to label their products – from tofu to flights – as “carbon neutral.” But sometimes, the “carbon neutral” they talk about doesn’t feel too neutral. Here is why.
Picture of Jussi Ahola
Written by Jussi Ahola
CEO and Co-Founder at Oncarbon
May 19, 2022

Carbon neutral flight – a dream or a tangible solution? In October 2021, IATA (International Air Transport Association) member airlines committed to net zero emissions from their operations by 20501. This was a bold pledge bringing aviation in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5°C – although 2050 seems a bit unambitious to me.

Anyway, how do the IATA members intend to achieve this?

The strategy includes increased use of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), new hydrogen-powered and electric aircraft, improving inefficient infrastructure, and carbon offsetting. The latter includes both “traditional” offsetting (like planting trees) and emergent high-tech carbon capture technologies.

At the same time, the demand for air travel could exceed 10 billion passenger journeys in 20502 (in the period before COVID-19, this figure was 4.56 billion journeys3).

Greenpeace has already called IATA’s statement “greenwashing”. But the aviation industry experts are convinced that the roadmap to sustainable aviation is real – and that executives feel the responsibility on their shoulders. “I imagine it’s like alcoholics. The first step is to admit we have a problem – and then do something about it,” said John Holland–Kaye, chief executive of Heathrow Airport.

Yes, we do have a problem. But I have a feeling that planting trees and labeling your flights “carbon neutral” won’t bail us out of it.

Carbon neutral flights and the offsetting

So, aviation today is still heavily dependent on fossil fuels and passenger traffic is growing. This means that the only way to make flying “carbon neutral” – according to many companies and industry representatives – is to offset emissions.

In a nutshell, offsetting means compensating for the carbon released into the atmosphere. This can be done by funding projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere, or by sequestering carbon already in the atmosphere back to solid matter.

Although some companies and programs offering carbon offsets aim for high integrity, there are well-known problems in the market. Doubts persist about the efficiency and effectiveness of planting trees and other offset methods.

One problem with even the high-integrity offsetting programs is in how they might, mentally, license us humans to act: “I view offset trading as greenwashing because it allows us to continue increasing emissions, but fools us to pretend that we are not increasing emissions,” Professor Johan Lilliestam told us some time ago.

Some airlines admit it themselves: United CEO Scott Kirby said in 2020 that United bought carbon credits to reduce the impact of its greenhouse gas emissions, but conventional carbon credits “do almost nothing to address the emissions of flying”4.

“More importantly, they (carbon credits) simply do not address the scale of this global challenge. Carbon emissions have increased 4000–fold since the Industrial Revolution. It’s simply not realistic to think we can plant enough trees today to bend that curve.” Scott Kirby, CEO of United Airlines

United decided to invest in the emerging direct air carbon capture technology, where the cost is admittedly still quite high. Today, permanently removing one ton of CO2 from the atmosphere costs about $800. United Airlines aircraft fleet emits about 34 million tons of carbon dioxide each year. Removing that amount of carbon from the atmosphere would cost about $27 billion per year 5, which is roughly equivalent to United’s gross annual profit.

But now, I digress from the key point of this article. Let me get back to it.

Do not call a flight “carbon neutral” if that claim of neutrality is based on offsets!

I believe that no product should be called “carbon neutral,” if that “neutrality” has been achieved through offsets. This applies to flights and to any other travel products – in fact, it applies to any product and service.

The problem with labeling a product as “carbon neutral” when in fact it has been compensated for, is the following: In many people’s minds, “carbon neutral” implies a thought “I can keep on consuming this product, and it won’t have any effect on the climate or the environment. Its effect is neutral, right?”

If we follow this argument to its logical conclusion, we could easily arrive at “carbon-negative” flying. Just buy carbon offsets that compensate for more emissions than the footprint of the flight. Splendid! I can keep on burning fossil fuels and in fact be saving the world while doing it!

Carbon negative car fuels! Carbon negative coal power! Carbon negative oil!

I have a feeling that this approach won’t get us closer to slowing (and stopping) the accumulation of planet-heating carbon in the atmosphere.

If used as a means to label products as “carbon neutral,” I suspect that offsets might even be counterproductive to that goal. We cannot just keep releasing greenhouse gasses from fossil fuels into the atmosphere and fool ourselves that it’s all “carbon neutral” – just because we have (hopefully) sequestered some carbon back into solid matter.

What should carbon neutral flight really mean?

So, we’ve established that I disagree with the maneuvers that many companies, including some airlines, perform to label their products as “carbon neutral.” What then is truly carbon neutral?

To me, a product is truly carbon neutral if no carbon emissions at all happen in the manufacturing process. Or, if the withdrawal of what has been emitted happens innately and naturally as part of that production process.

Riding a bicycle is carbon neutral (non-LCA*). Driving an electric car can be carbon neutral (non-LCA). Flying an airplane powered by 100% solar kerosene is carbon neutral (but not necessarily climate neutral, because of contrails and cloud formation.)

But please, don’t tell me that an offsetted flight of today is equally “carbon neutral” as riding a bicycle. That doesn’t do justice to riding a bicycle.

Let’s face it: air travel causes emissions

Do I have a better suggestion then? Well, let’s call a spade a spade and be a little more honest.

If a flight (or any other product) has emissions associated with it, let people know about those emissions. Tell them what the carbon footprint of the flight (or one seat on that flight) is, what you are doing to reduce this footprint, and what carbon removal (or other environmental) projects you are supporting and by how much. Raise awereness, empower people to make informed decisions. Giving consumers the opportunity to vote with their wallets for the lowest emission options on the market today is a powerful tool to increase the demand and supply for even better options in the future.

However, do not fool people into thinking that paying an extra $5 will make everything “neutral”. That won’t get us very far. Hopefully, one day commercial flights will really be carbon neutral. Unfortunately we are not there yet today.

And let me be clear: I have nothing against supporting and donating money to good projects in the areas of reforestation, nature conservation, carbon removal, or technology adoption. On the contrary: I support such projects myself. But I do not believe that they make my consumption and lifestyle choices “neutral.” It doesn’t make it all go away, or compensate for the emissions.

“Carbon neutral” is just words

“Carbon neutral” was named word of the year in 2006 and has since been widely used in almost every industry – from food to travel. It’s easy for people to view products labeled “carbon neutral” as the better ones, without acknowledging how that neutrality was achieved. But that doesn’t make the practice okay – companies need to do better than this.

The future of our planet is not about words – it’s about actions. There’s no point in using the term “carbon neutral” if we are not reducing our emissions, but just trying to offset them. We need to do better than have an “offset your flight​​” button. We need honest, transparent information about what a flight costs the environment. Only then will we be able to bring about real change.

Picture of Jussi Ahola
Jussi Ahola
Building Oncarbon by day, sailing on an old 22′ boat by night. CEO and Co-Founder at Oncarbon.