Airline offsetting is a distraction from policies that can actually reduce aviation CO2 emissions

Andrew Murphy, aviation expert at T&E, explains why offsetting does not work to remove the carbon flights emit. He gets asked about this a lot. He says:  “It’s a reality that people fly more and more regularly …for some it is unavoidable …What’s equally unavoidable is the climate impact of those flights … There is no “green option” for flying … Offsetting is just paying someone else to reduce your emissions, rather than reduce your own. For example, investing in renewable energy or tree-planting in some other part of the globe. … Do carbon offsets work? … Many have called them modern day papal indulgences … offsetting most certainly will not wipe your carbon slate clean … they won’t work in practice, and they won’t work in theory … [trees planted may not survive, a solar farm might have been built anyway] … there is the problem of “additionality” … some offsets are when parties set weak targets for themselves, and sell you any overachievement as an offset. No extra emissions are reduced … While offsetting by individuals is, at worst, ineffective, Governments implementing offsetting schemes worse (eg. Corsia) – a distraction from effective policies that can actually reduce aviation emissions.”  Read the whole blog.


Airline offsetting is a distraction from policies that can actually reduce emissions

“Should I offset my flight, and if so, which offset should I use” is now the question I get asked most frequently.   It’s understandable – CO2 emissions per flight mean that flying is by far the most carbon intensive activity anyone can engage in.

By Andrew Murphy (Transport & Environment – T&E)

January 13, 2020

It’s a reality that people fly more and more regularly. Some have cut back on flying, a few have given up entirely. But, whether it’s for work or to visit family abroad, flying, for many, is unavoidable.

What’s equally unavoidable is the climate impact of those flights.

We’re fortunate that in an increasing number of our consumer choices, we can choose the greener option. Electric cars, renewable energy, meatless diets and well insulated homes. But no “green option” exists for flying. (More below on why that’s the case.) 

So for those wanting to fly, it leaves them in a bind, looking for a way to compensate for the climate damage they are causing. The answer being presented by some is to offset – to pay someone else to reduce their emissions, rather than reduce your own. For example, investing in renewable energy or tree-planting in some other part of the globe.

Do carbon offsets work? 

Many have called them modern day papal indulgences, after the middle ages practice of paying priests to absolve you of your sins. I’m not a theologist, indeed I’m a (very) lapsed Catholic, so I’m no expert on whether indulgences will cleanse your soul. But we can be honest and say that, after decades of trying to make them work, offsetting most certainly will not wipe your carbon slate clean. The reasons are, unfortunately, a little complex but, briefly, there’s a reason they won’t work in practice, and a reason they won’t work in theory. 

The “in practice” is easiest to explain. When you make a payment, you can’t be sure that the carbon-cutting activity you pay for actually takes place, or wouldn’t have taken place regardless of the payment. For example, whether those trees planted won’t burn down, or whether the solar plant was going to be built anyway. It’s known as “additionality” and the most comprehensive research has shown that most offsets don’t have it.

The theoretical problem is rooted in how the Paris Agreement has been designed. The agreement has a temperature and emissions target, but it lets each party set their own level of ambition. That leaves open the possibility that parties will set weak targets for themselves, and sell you any overachievement as an offset. No extra emissions are reduced, but you’re led to believe that you’re flying sustainably.

As a result, it’s fair to say that offsetting, more generally, is incompatible with the Paris Agreement. That agreement is about all sectors and all parties bringing their emissions to zero.

Paying someone else to reduce emissions, while airlines keep burning fossil fuels, is incompatible with that objective. 

Fitting offsetting into the Paris Agreement is like fitting a square peg into a round hole

Despite this apparent contradiction, the Paris Agreement does in fact have provisions relating to offsetting, contained in Article 6 of that agreement. The catch is that, four years after the Paris Agreement was signed, states still can’t agree how to operationalise these provisions. They failed again last month at the climate conference in Madrid. It’s the only section of the agreement that negotiators have failed to operationalise.

And they are likely to continue to fail, because fitting offsetting into the Paris Agreement is like fitting a square peg into a round hole. Offsetting should be seen as a bug, not a feature, of the agreement.

How to cure climate guilt? 

Where does all this leave the concerned citizen who wants to cure their climate guilt? They can offset, doing their best to find the most reputable suppliers. The transfer of any money from the well-off (and it is the well-off who fly most) to those most affected by climate change (and it’s always the worst-off who’ll be most affected) should be welcome.

The unavoidable reality is that the limited benefits of offsetting will never be enough to offset the known damage of flying.

That hasn’t stopped industry from investing in them, even when they freely admit that offsetting isn’t a solution. And there are moves underway to finalise a global system where airlines will offset a portion of their emissions (called Corsia – the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation), though the problems inherent to offsetting mean it will never solve aviation’s climate problem. Yet airlines are pushing for this to be the only measure in place.

What governments need to do 

So governments have a choice to make. Because, unlike individuals, who have limited choice and limited power, the options for governments are practically endless. They can tax, invest, ban, restrict, order and command. That’s why we have electric vehicles and clean power – because the power of the state was used to bend markets and drive innovation.

Offsetting by individuals is, at worst, ineffective.

Governments implementing offsetting schemes is something much worse – a distraction from effective policies that can actually reduce aviation emissions. 

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and her new team seem to understand this. The European Green Deal makes no reference to aviation offsetting, but instead focuses on policies such as kerosene taxation, emissions trading and new fuels. All these have the potential to really cut emissions.

The test is whether she is able to follow through on these big promises. Some industries will try to distract focus by continuing to flog offsetting but VdL must continue to avoid such futile ideas. She has the political capital and the public demand to take real measures to cut aircraft emissions. Now is the time to act.


See also


EU study shows most carbon offsets do not work – aviation sector plans depend on them

Carbon offsets are not working, according to a study by the European Commission. The concept of carbon offsets is to allow polluters to pay others to reduce their CO2 emissions, so they can continue to pollute. This is usually considered the cheapest (“most cost effective”) way to make token gesture carbon cuts. The EC research found that 85% of the offset projects used by the EU under the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) failed to reduce CO2 emissions.  EU member states decided not to allow the use of offsets to meet European climate goals after 2021. The global market-based measure adopted last October by ICAO relies exclusively on offsetting in its attempt at “carbon neutral growth” for aviation from 2020. Yet Europe is now endorsing the approach at ICAO to address international aviation emissions using the same approach that this report so thoroughly discredits. The problem with offsets is that they are often not making the CO2 cuts suggested, or that the cuts would have happened anyway.  To make matters worse, the ICAO agreement so far fails to include important safeguards which would exclude the worst types of offsets eg. forestry credits, or ensuring adequate transparency about the offsets used. With CDM offsets trading for as little as €0.50 a tonne, offsetting will not cut CO2 – nor will it incentivise greater aircraft efficiency.



Offsetting by passengers on flights won’t get us to net zero, says AEF in response to government offsetting consultation

The Department for Transport’s held a consultation “Carbon offsetting in transport: a call for evidence” which closed on 26th September.  The consultation outlined a proposal to require all air travel providers and other providers of ticketed travel to give passengers the option to buy a carbon offset for their journey. The Aviation Environment Federation did a response, in which they agree with the CCC’s view that “the UK should not plan to meet is climate change obligations using international offset credits.” They also agree with the EU’s decision to exclude international offsets from its ETS. There are few good quality carbon offsets available, and very few deliver CO2 reductions beyond what would have happened anyway. In the not-too-distant future, when all countries and sectors are cutting their emissions, there will not be many spare credits available. AEF say: “But a key argument against offsetting is that it risks distracting from the need to rein in aviation demand in order to tackle emissions.” People think that having bought a cheap offset for a few ££s means that’s all OK, and they can book another flight.  It delays real cuts in aviation emissions, that can only be achieved by the industry not expanding.