Why airlines should offer their passengers more than just carbon offsets

The urgency of decarbonization is becoming increasingly clear to most airlines. To meet their environmental goals, most of them are encouraging their passengers to pay extra to offset their carbon emissions. While carbon withdrawal is a necessary tool in combating global warming, carbon offsets should not be airlines’ only offer.
Picture of Jussi Ahola
Written by Jussi Ahola
CEO and Co-Founder at Oncarbon
October 21, 2022

“Click here to cancel your greenhouse gas emissions” is an enticing offer. It promises that for as little as €5 or €10, passengers can offset the climate damage caused by flying. But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll realize things are not that simple.

The idea of carbon offsets in air travel is quite straightforward: an airline passenger pays to remove or sequester carbon that enters the atmosphere as a result of the flight; the money is directed to projects that plant trees or restore soil carbon, for instance.

However, recent independent investigations have uncovered numerous doubts about the credibility of many offset programs.

Critical review of carbon offsets

A May 2022 report by investment bank Credit Suisse described the voluntary market as a “wild west” with “little transparency” and “little (if any) correlation between price and credit quality”.1 An earlier joint investigation of British Airways and EasyJet’s offset programs conducted by The Guardian and Unearthed (the investigative arm of Greenpeace) also found numerous doubts about the credibility of the offset programs.2 And a 2017 study on offsets commissioned by the European Commission found that 85% of offset projects under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) had failed to deliver on their claims.3

Does this mean that airlines should abandon offering offsets altogether? We believe this is not the answer and that there is an opportunity to improve the reputation of offset projects and restore the confidence of airline customers – and here is what we believe needs to be done.

Honest flight emissions calculations

A major problem with carbon offsets for flights mentioned in the Credit Suisse report is the wide disparity between airlines and footprint calculators in the amount of carbon dioxide they claim to have been emitted on a flight. As we described in one of our articles, different flight emissions calculators often show very different results when comparing the exact same itinerary. This is due to different methods and approaches to calculating the carbon footprint, the inclusion or exclusion of non-CO2 emissions and radiative forcing effects (RFI), and other factors.

And while there is no universal agreement on how aviation emissions should be calculated and what should be included in the numbers, we believe it is best for airlines to use verified third-party solutions, such as Oncarbon, to do this. Today, a passenger buying an airline ticket sees that “this flight emits 33% less CO2 than the average,” but what is the average? Who calculated that? Based on what data? It’s not hard to provide some numbers besides the ticket price – but the key is to provide comparable, high-integrity data, verified by an independent source, and disclose any assumptions made in the calculations. Doing this increases an airline’s credibility and helps restore the damaged trust of passengers.

Ineffective offsets

Properly designed, transparent and rigorous offsets can be a useful tool to mitigate emissions – but definitely not a carte blanche to continue burning fossil fuels or a trick to make a flight “carbon neutral.”

“Even if you have managed to invest in a project and avoid some of the carbon emissions, that does not solve the problem of emissions from your flight,” said Cait Hewitt, deputy director of the UK NGO Aviation Environment Federation, in an interview with The Guardian4. “We should not kid ourselves that this will somehow lead to a carbon-neutral flight. That’s simply not the case.”

At Oncarbon, we believe that a passenger who purchases offsets has a right to know how much CO2 was actually removed from the atmosphere and what percentage of the flight was offset. And it is by no means possible that €2 – or even €20 – will entirely cancel out the climate effects of a flight and make it “carbon neutral.”

The €2 is not made up – a recent analysis conducted by Transport & Environment (T&E) revealed that the UN aviation agency, ICAO, uses a system of purchasing offsets that adds €2.40 to the price of a long-haul flight. This is the amount passengers would pay to offset their carbon emissions on a flight from Europe to the United States in 20305.

This system, called CORSIA (Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation), proves to be totally ineffective. As calculated by Transport & Environment, by 2030 all flights from the EEA to the US will contribute 23.5 million tonnes of CO2 poured into the atmosphere, and CORSIA offsets would cover only 8.6 million tonnes – 36.7% – of those emissions. This makes it very unlikely that the industry will reach its 2050 net-zero goal, whilst also failing to address non-CO2 effects of aviation.

Supplements, not substitutes

Another problem with offsets is that many of them are generated from avoided emissions – for example, by increasing energy efficiency, replacing fossil fuels with renewables, or stopping deforestation – rather than from withdrawing carbon that is already in the atmosphere. For this reason, airlines should be transparent about what offsets they offer, select only quality projects, and view them as supplements – not substitutes – for reducing aviation emissions.

Most airlines have already recognized that they need to do something for the climate and reduce their emissions. Some already offer their customers opportunities to buy blocks of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), which we believe is the right way to go. According to experts, SAF can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 20-80% over the entire life cycle compared to conventional jet fuel. Until recently, they may have been a marginal product, but experts agree that they are the future of more sustainable aviation, and offering them should become the standard.

Some airlines, such as KLM and SAS, already offer the purchase of SAF to their customers. At SAS, customers have the option to purchase biofuel, from which SAS makes no profit (it comes on top of the biofuel SAS has already committed to purchasing themselves). KLM also offers its customers the option to purchase an additional amount of sustainable fuel.

Reducing, not just offsetting

It’s time for airlines to do more than just offer the “offset your flight for €5” option. First, airlines should be transparent about their flights’ emissions and openly help their customers to make informed decisions. Our recent Sustainable Travel Report showed that sustainable travel is important to 78% of consumers, but at the same time 77% say they lack transparent information about which travel options are sustainable.

Second, the offsets that are offered should be transparent and high-quality, used as complementary products, and not used to make claims that do not stand up to closer scrutiny. No airline should label its flights as “climate neutral” because that’s just greenwashing – and consumers are becoming increasingly aware of this.

Finally, airlines should also be offering their passengers SAF add-ons as a tangible means of reducing their carbon footprint and decarbonizing the industry – especially if aviation leaders want to keep the promise that their global CO2 emissions will be half of what they were in 2005 by 2050.

If you’re interested in learning more about carbon labeling of flights, high-quality carbon withdrawal credits, and SAF solutions, contact us at Oncarbon – we are be happy to show you our entire offer.

Original cover picture: Kevin Rajaram/Unsplash.

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